Prickly pear cacti are known for their large fleshy pads, which contain hundreds of tiny barbed spines that protect them from their natural predators. These spines will detach from the plant when touched, and they are easily capable of penetrating human skin. Most prickly pear cactus varieties feature a combination of soft and sharp spines, with the soft ones typically covering the pads and the hard ones covering the edges.
There are many different types of cactus spines, including bristles and glochids. A glochid is a tiny hair-like spine that is typically found on Opuntia cacti (e.g., prickly pears). Glochids are very thin and straight, so they easily slip under human skin. When this happens, the glochid will irritate the skin until it is removed. Unfortunately, these needles can be difficult to see because they’re so fine, so it’s best not to touch prickly pear cacti at all if you don’t want to risk injury.
They can cause skin irritation, rashes, and infections, but they are not poisonous. Even though the spines have no venom or toxins in them, it’s still important to be careful when handling cacti because they do cause skin irritations.
Prickly pear cactus needles are modified leaves that fall off when touched. The needles can easily detach from the plant and attach themselves to the person who handled them.
Do I Need to Be Concerned About Getting Pricked?
The short answer is no, at least not about getting poisoned. All cacti contain natural chemicals that are toxic to predators but in small amounts. The needle does not provide a significant enough dose for people or animals to suffer any ill effects; however, there are still several reasons you should be careful around them.
The most obvious reason is being stuck by the spines themselves. They are very sharp and can cause pain and injury if they pierce your skin or even just poke around until they find something soft to get stuck into. The sharp tip can also puncture the surface of your skin in order to lodge itself in place, which can hurt more than just being poked by the spine itself. Aside from physical injury, there is also the possibility of infection if a spine gets lodged in your skin deeper than the surface level.
The Hidden Thorns of Opuntias…and How to Remove Them
The opuntias are different from other cacti by their thorns or spines. Usually, these spines are sharp and needle-like and sometimes even can be quite long (a few cm). These spines are connected to the cladodes by a peduncle, which is also referred to as a caudex. These spines can be found on the cladodes of all species of opuntias.
Two Types of Thorns
Opuntias are unusual among cacti in that they produce two types of spines.
Those that are long, sharp, and penetrate the skin, causing the victim to scream and blood to flow, are very visible. However, on the cushioned areola at the base of the ferocious spines, there are other, tiny spines called glochids that look like harmless little hairs.
The effects of glochid exposure can be immediate or delayed for up to several days after exposure. The severity of their effects depends on where on the body they have been lodged, how many have lodged themselves there, and whether or not the person has had previous exposure to glochids.
Glochids can cause a variety of painful symptoms including:
- Intense burning sensation
- Skin irritation
- Inflamed pustules
- Shiny raised bumps around the area of contact
How to Remove Glochids
Ideally, you’d wear thick, long-sleeved gloves or use bottle clamps to handle an opuntia, but if you ever touch the glochids by accident, remove them fairly quickly, before they get into your skin. A good way to do that is with tweezers. If you don’t have any at hand and need to improvise with the tools you have lying around, try using a pair of needle-nose pliers. You may still feel a little pain after removing the glochid(s), but if the area becomes red and sore over the next few days, it’s likely that some of them still remain in your skin.
Next, Glochids can easily get stuck in clothing or any other fabric, so be sure to wear protective gloves when handling them. The first thing you should do is wash the affected area gently with soap and water. Then, using white household glue, cover the skin of the affected area with a thin layer of glue, then lightly press gauze into the glue. Let the glue dry for about 30 minutes, then pull. According to a study, this will result in the removal of 95% of the glochids. If you’re worried about an allergic reaction to the glue, use an antibiotic ointment.
After Penetration, No Salvation
Glochids are the tiny, bristly hairs that cover the leaves of many cacti. Though they can be uncomfortable to brush up against, glochids are generally harmless and will come out with your skin as you brush against them. However, if you happen to come into direct contact with a cactus, some glochids may penetrate your skin. Once this happens, you will have to wait for your body to react. It will probably cause dermatitis (inflammation of the skin caused by an allergic reaction) followed by pimples and then, eventually, expulsion.
My opinion? Admire the opuntias from a distance. These are not plants that one would want to know too intimately!
How Long do Glochids Stay in Skin?
Glochids are the fine spines that surround the seeds of certain cacti. They’re not needles, but they can lodge in the skin and remain there for a long time. The time glochids remain in the skin depends on the depth and location of their incursion.
Is Prickly Pear Poisonous to Dogs?
When deciding whether or not to feed your dog a prickly pear, it’s important to understand the difference between the two most common varieties of plant: Opuntia ficus-indica and Opuntia stricta. Opuntia ficus-indica, commonly known as Indian fig, is the variety from which most prickly pear cactus farms grow. It produces a sweet fruit that is edible for humans, but poisonous for dogs and cats. The pulp of this variety contains cyanic acid and oxalic acid. It can also induce diarrhea in dogs if they consume enough of it. The leaves and spines contain glochidioses, which are sharp-pointed structures designed to hurt animals that eat them (primarily to deter predators).
Opuntia stricta, on the other hand, is usually grown in the wild as an ornamental plant. This variety produces fruit that is more akin to a vegetable than a fruit. Dogs have been known to eat this fruit when it falls off of bushes into their yard.
It should be noted that both species of cactus plants can cause irritation to a dog’s mouth if they attempt to chew on the leaves or spines.
Prickly pear cactus needles are not poisonous, but they can cause skin irritation in some people due to the fine spines that cover their surfaces.
For most humans, prickly pear cactus needles aren’t harmful. The tiny spines don’t reach deep enough to get into nearby blood vessels or nerves which would cause serious problems, but they can cause discomfort and swelling.