The thorny perils of gardening: A pricked thumb, rashes... and even poisoning!

A thorn in the finger is an everyday injury for most gardeners — and for tree surgeon Lindsay MacPherson it’s more routine than most. 

So when he snagged his finger on a blackthorn tree he was chopping, he naturally thought little of it.

But that little thorn caused an infection that left him in hospital for ten days, and at risk of organ failure.

A thorn in the finger is an everyday injury for most gardeners ¿ and for tree surgeon Lindsay MacPherson it¿s more routine than most

A thorn in the finger is an everyday injury for most gardeners — and for tree surgeon Lindsay MacPherson it’s more routine than most

‘I have to admit, I wasn’t wearing gloves,’ says the 47-year-old about the incident in 2016. 

‘I thought nothing of it, as I was always getting minor injuries.’

The thorn embedded in the middle finger of his right hand and, although he tried to pull it out, a tiny part remained. 

When his finger began to throb two days later, he visited a minor injuries unit, but deterred by a ‘monster queue’, he instead consulted a friend, an ex-nurse, who cleaned the injury.

‘I thought that was that,’ explains Lindsay, who lives with his wife Rosie, 47, and their three children in Abergele, North Wales.

When his finger began to throb two days later, he visited a minor injuries unit, but deterred by a ¿monster queue¿, he instead consulted a friend, an ex-nurse, who cleaned the injury

When his finger began to throb two days later, he visited a minor injuries unit, but deterred by a ‘monster queue’, he instead consulted a friend, an ex-nurse, who cleaned the injury

But, five days later, during a long car journey with another friend, he began to feel extremely unwell. 

‘My left elbow was really painful and my right hand was swelling up; I was going in and out of consciousness,’ he recalls.

The concerned friend took him to the nearest hospital, in Abergavenny, where blood tests revealed that Lindsay had developed life-threatening sepsis, caused by bacteria that entered his body via the thorn. 

He was immediately rushed into the operating theatre for surgery to clean the infection in his hand and elbow.

This was to flush and scrape out the elbow joint where the infection had set in. Debris was removed and doctors stitched up his the wounds.

Sepsis is a life-threatening condition that occurs when your immune system overreacts to any kind of infection. 

Symptoms include slurred speech or confusion, a cough, extreme shivering, passing no urine during the day, mottled or discoloured skin and feeling extremely unwell.

It can progress rapidly, causing a catastrophic drop in blood pressure and organ failure — every year sepsis claims the lives of 52,000 Britons, according to the UK Sepsis Trust.

Gardening is a well known cause, says Dr Ron Daniels, executive director of the UK Sepsis Trust. 

He explains that scratches to the skin account for 10 per cent of all sepsis cases, and this can result from something as simple as ‘a gardener scratching themselves on a rose thorn’.

The infection might not be caused by the thorn itself, Dr Daniels says, but rather by the gardener coming into contact with soil containing bacteria such as E. coli or Listeria, which enter the bloodstream via the cut.

Dr Daniels says that although it’s easy to dismiss a minor gardening injury, ‘if you feel any of the symptoms of sepsis, call 999 — it is a medical emergency’.

Luckily for Lindsay, after ten days on powerful intravenous antibiotics, he was discharged from hospital. But it was four months before he could work full-time and 12 months before he was completely recovered.

Even then, he still suffered from fatigue, confusion, headaches and long-term immune system problems, which means he is more susceptible to coughs and colds.

Now Lindsay always wears gloves when he is gardening, and he encourages others to do the same. 

‘Gloves would have stopped this from happening,’ he says. ‘That tiny blackthorn could have killed me.’

While gardening has certainly been a godsend for many during the many months of lockdown, Lindsay’s story is a cautionary tale of the possible hazards that can be involved.

Indeed, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) says 300,000 people are hurt in their gardens every year, seriously enough to need hospital treatment — with the most common accidents being caused while using lawnmowers, hedge trimmers and secateurs.

There are, in fact, several health complaints that can arise from a spell in the garden.

In 2018, a German study, published in the Journal of the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology, found keratinocyte cancers (a type of skin cancer) in 20 per cent of professional gardeners. 

As well as stings and bites, here are some of the other gardening hazards — and how you can avoid them...

Skin troubles

Some of our best-loved blooms contain compounds that can irritate the skin and eyes — for instance, hyacinth bulbs can cause itching and inflammation when handled.

Skin reactions caused by plants — known as phytodermatitis — can even occur without direct contact with a plant, warns Dr Sweta Rai, a dermatologist based in London and spokesperson for the British Association of Dermatologists. 

‘For example, if you have some sap from a plant on your clothes, and that then touches your skin, it can cause a rash,’ Dr Rai adds.

Common culprits include the green flowering plant euphorbia, wood nettle and leadwort.

Plant dermatitis usually results in an itchy, red rash, which may also blister in more severe cases. This usually appears shortly after contact but may take up to 48 hours to

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