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Definition

What is ricin poisoning?

Ricin is a toxic protein found naturally in castor beans from the castor bean plant (Ricinus communis). Only a small amount of this poison can be lethal. An amount as small as a grain of table salt can be sufficient to kill an adult if it is ingested, inhaled, or injected. If castor beans are chewed and swallowed, ricin can be released, however, simply chewing the beans won’t necessarily kill a person.

Ricin poisoning is not an infectious disease, and it’s not contagious (spread from person to person).

How common is ricin poisoning?

Please discuss with your doctor for further information.

Symptoms

What are the symptoms of ricin poisoning?

The major symptoms of ricin poisoning depend on the route of exposure and the dose received, though many organs may be affected in severe cases.

Initial symptoms of poisoning by inhalation may occur as early as 4- 8 hours and as late as 24 hours after exposure. Following ingestion of ricin, initial symptoms typically occur in less than 10 hours.

Inhalation: Within a few hours of inhaling significant amounts of ricin, the likely symptoms would be respiratory distress (difficulty breathing), fever, cough, nausea, and tightness in the chest. Heavy sweating may follow as well as fluid building up in the lungs (pulmonary edema). This would make breathing even more difficult, and the skin might turn blue. Excess fluid in the lungs would be diagnosed by x-ray or by listening to the chest with a stethoscope. Finally, low blood pressure and respiratory failure may occur, leading to death. In cases of known exposure to it, people having respiratory symptoms should seek medical care.

Ingestion: If someone swallows a significant amount of ricin, he or she would likely develop vomiting and diarrhea that may become bloody. Severe dehydration may be the result, followed by low blood pressure. Other signs or symptoms may include seizures, and blood in the urine. Within several days, the person’s liver, spleen, and kidneys might stop working, and the person could die.

Skin and eye exposure: It is unlikely to be absorbed through normal skin. Contact with ricin powders or products may cause redness and pain of the skin and the eyes. However, if you touch ricin that is on your skin and then eat food with your hands or put your hands in your mouth, you may ingest some.

Ricin poisoning could kill a person within 36 to 72 hours of exposure, depending on the route of exposure (inhalation, ingestion, or injection) and the dose received.

There may be some symptoms not listed above. If you have any concerns about a symptom, please consult your doctor.

When should I see my doctor?

If you have any signs or symptoms listed above or have any questions, please consult with your doctor. Everyone’s body acts differently. It is always best to discuss with your doctor what is best for your situation.

Causes

What causes ricin poisoning?

Ricin is derived from the beans of the castor plant (Ricinus communis), and is part of the waste material called “white mash” that is left over from processing castor beans into castor oil. People may get ricin poisoning if they expose to ricin.

Exposure arises when ricin is inhaled, ingested, or injected.

This poison acts by preventing cells from making proteins; if body cells cannot make protein, they eventually die. The person is killed when cells that compose vital organs cease to function.

Risk factors

What increases my risk for ricin poisoning?

Please discuss with your doctor for further information.

Diagnosis & treatment

The information provided is not a substitute for any medical advice. ALWAYS consult with your doctor for more information.

How is ricin poisoning diagnosed?

Diagnosing an aerosolized attack or a food and water contamination of this type of poisoning primarily depends on symptoms and the likelihood of such an exposure. In cases of an isolated ricin injection, diagnosis is extremely difficult. In addition, diagnostic testing is of limited value, because there are no definitive, widely available medical tests that can confirm exposure to the poison. Nonetheless, in the case of possible exposure, the patient will most likely undergo a complete physical examination by a doctor. Sophisticated diagnostic tests (not widely available) can identify ricin in the body up to 24 hours after exposure. Please see the section on signs and symptoms for information about early symptoms.

How is ricin poisoning treated?

There is no available antidote or vaccine. Regardless of the route of exposure, treatment remains mainly supportive.

  • In the case of an inhalation, the person may need assistance with breathing. If particularly severe, the person who was exposed may require intubation and use of a ventilator.
  • In the case of ingestion, the stomach may need to be pumped (called gastric decontamination). Super-activated charcoal may also be given to help soak up the poison. To treat dehydration, intravenous fluids may be given.

Antibiotics serve no role in the treatment of ricin poisoning, as this is not an infectious condition.

  • Medications may be given to treat seizures and low blood pressure that are sometimes associated with exposure to the poison.
  • In the case of ricin exposure by injection, antibiotics may serve to prevent a secondary infection. A tetanus immunization may also be given as a precautionary measure.

Lifestyle changes & home remedies

What are some lifestyle changes or home remedies that can help me manage ricin poisoning?

The following lifestyles and home remedies might help you cope with ricin poisoning:

The only effective prevention against a biological attack with ricin is avoidance. Unfortunately, no antidote or vaccine exists. Currently, investigations are ongoing for possible vaccines and ricin inhibitors. Protective masks have been shown to be effective in preventing toxicity during an aerosol attack.

Although ricin is not the ideal biological warfare agent, it remains a threat, primarily as a food and water contaminant. This poison is widely available and easily produced. With the increasing number of biological threats, hoaxes, and “how to” Internet resources available, this threat has the potential to become reality. Therefore, being familiar with its characteristics is important.

If you have any questions, please consult with your doctor to better understand the best solution for you.

Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

Sources

Review Date: October 30, 2017 | Last Modified: October 30, 2017

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