Oleander (Nerium oleander) is an evergreen shrub or small tree that is prized by home gardeners for its showy, funnel-shaped blooms. Hardy to U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 8 through 10, oleander is part of the Apocynaceae or dogbane family. Oleanders are fast-growing and easy to care for, which makes them an appealing landscape plant. However, all parts of this plant are highly toxic and in some locations is considered invasive
An unlikely name is making the news for an even less like reason: oleander. Otherwise known as Nerium oleander, the distinctive plant isn't just known for its vibrant flowers and thick, leathery leaves — it's also an extremely poisonous plant that's been known to cause severe illness and death from just a taste.
And now there are reports that President Donald Trump has expressed enthusiasm about the toxic plant's unproven, highly controversial potential role in the curing coronavirus.
After meeting with Mike Lindell, the guy known for creating "MyPillow," and Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson, Trump apparently voiced support for oleandrin, a botanical made from the poisonous oleander plant.
But doctors, toxicologists, public health experts and other medical professionals are not only suspicious of the plant's potential to positively impact the COVID-19 crisis in any way — they're concerned it could kill people in the investigation process.
Oleandrin as a Medication?
Oleander also is where the derivative botanical oleandrin comes from. It's very similar to digoxin, the compound derived from foxglove plants. It's used to treat very advanced heart failure patients. "Oleandrin is a toxic compound, a toxic cardiac glycoside, found in the oleander plant," Albina explains.
Cardiac glycosides are found in several plants, like the digitalis (foxglove), and the compounds are used in medications that treat heart failure and certain irregular heartbeats. However, people who ingest plants containing cardiac glycosides or who take medications containing cardiac glycosides every day can easily overdose.
"What's important to note about [oleandrin] is that it has actually been shown to reduce life expectancy (although its effects might improve quality of life for patients with advanced heart failure)," says Ryan Marino, M.D., a board certified emergency medicine physician in Cleveland, Ohio, and an expert in medical toxicology. "There is no indication that such cardioactive steroids, like digoxin and oleandrin, would help with viral infections like COVID-19."
ARE THERE SAFETY CONCERNS?
Injecting a specific oleander product (Anvirzel) into the muscle is POSSIBLY SAFE when administered by a healthcare professional.
Oleander is LIKELY UNSAFE for anyone to take by mouth. It can cause a burning sensation in the mouth, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, weakness, headache, stomach pain, serious heart problems, and many other side effects. Taking the oleander leaf, oleander leaf tea, or oleander seeds has led to deadly poisonings.
There isn't enough information to know whether or not it is safe to apply oleander to the skin. It's best not to do this.
Special Precautions & Warnings:
It's LIKELY UNSAFE for anyone to take oleander by mouth. But oleander is especially dangerous for people with the following conditions:
Children: Oleander is LIKELY UNSAFE when taken by mouth in children. Taking the oleander leaf, oleander leaf tea, or oleander seeds has led to deadly poisonings.
Pregnancy and breast-feeding: Taking oleander by mouth is LIKELY UNSAFE as it might cause an abortion or cause birth defects. There isn't enough information to know whether or not it is safe for pregnant or breast-feeding women to apply oleander to the skin. Stay on the safe side and avoid use.
Too little potassium or too much calcium (electrolyte imbalance): Oleander affects the heart. An electrolyte imbalance also affects the heart. It's especially dangerous to use oleander if you have an electrolyte imbalance.
Heart disease: Don't use oleander to treat heart disease without the supervision of a healthcare professional. It's too dangerous to self-medicate.