The Full Story
Abrus precatorius beans (also known as rosary peas or jequirity beans) are shiny, scarlet-red seeds with a black spot. Other less common varieties can come as a white seed with a black eye or a black seed with a white eye. These plants are native to Africa, Asia, Australia, and the Pacific region but have been introduced to other locations including Florida and Hawaii. This plant is considered an invasive species in the US. The seeds from A. precatorius are commonly used in ornamental bracelets, jewelry, and children's toys made outside of the US.
The entire A. precatorius plant contains a protein (also known as a toxalbumin) called abrin, which is considered highly toxic to humans. Abrin causes toxicity through cell death. Despite its toxicity, parts of the A. precatorius plant have been used as home remedies to treat certain illnesses.
Most cases of human exposure to abrin come from eating A. precatorius beans. There is limited information on the minimum number of A. precatorius beans that must be ingested to cause toxicity, so any number is considered potentially dangerous. Symptoms typically begin within a few hours after ingestion but can be delayed for up to 5 days. Typical symptoms include nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, and diarrhea that can worsen and become bloody. Patients might also experience fast heart rate, headache, hallucinations, lethargy, seizures, fever, and organ failure. There is no antidote for abrin poisoning and hospitalization is often needed to manage the symptoms.
If you suspect someone is having symptoms from an Abrus precatorius exposure, check the webPOISONCONTROL® online tool for guidance or call Poison Control at 1-800-222-1222 immediately.
Diana N. Pei, PharmD
Certified Specialist in Poison Information
- Know the names of the plants on your property in case one is unintentionally eaten.
- Do not eat outdoor plants or make teas from them unless they have been correctly identified and are known to be safe.
- Be cautious when purchasing foreign-made jewelry and toys. They might contain A. precatorius beans.
This Really Happened
An 18-month-old boy developed multiple episodes of vomiting, watery diarrhea for 2 days, and decreased activity. While changing the child's diaper, parents found small red seeds with a circular black tip. The parents took pictures of the seeds and contacted the child's daycare center and pediatrician who were unable to identify the seeds. Poison Control was contacted and identified the seeds as Abrus precatorius and advised that the child be taken to an ER immediately.
In the ER, the boy complained of mild abdominal discomfort and he was given IV fluids and medication for nausea. The child tested positive for blood in his diarrhea. He was admitted to the intensive care unit, where his abdominal pain improved, but his bloody diarrhea persisted. Poison Control was consulted and recommended nothing by mouth for 8 hours and to continue hydration. The boy made a full recovery and was discharged 3 days later. The source of the A. precatorius seeds was never discovered (From Alhamdani et al., 2015).