Euphorbia are an extremely diverse family of flowering plants, sometimes known as spurge. Some look like weeds, others are confused with cacti, and the type you’re probably most familiar with — poinsettia — have large red flowers you usually see all over the place at Christmastime.
However, it’s not the plants’ looks that interest researchers. A substance in the plant’s sap called ingenol mebutate is linked to the treatment of several skin conditions, including growths that can sometimes lead to skin cancer.
The plant has been used for centuries by native tribes across the globe to treat a variety of diseases and ailments, but clinical evidence that these are effective treatments still remains minimal.
A fair warning: if you’re looking for a natural remedy that’s safe and without side effects, variations of the Euphorbia plant may not be right for you. The milky sap, no matter which variety of plant it comes from, can cause severe, painful irritation when it comes in contact with the eye, nose, or mouth.
While the sap does appear to have some medicinal value, the plant and its extracts can be poisonous to the point of death in large amounts.
It’s best to discuss the use of Euphorbia with your doctor before using it to treat any of the following conditions.
People have used the sap from petty spurge, or Euphorbia peplus, to treat skin infections for centuries. It works by keeping tissue from replicating rapidly, preventing the spread of infection.
In 2012, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved it to treat actinic keratosis. This is a precancerous skin condition that typically affects fair-skinned people who get lots of sun exposure.
The sap is sold as a gel, called Picato. You apply it for two days to the trunk and extremities at 0.05 percent strength, and for three days to the face and scalp at 0.015 percent strength.
Euphorbia is also used to treat skin problems like eczema and common rashes. But the ability to inhibit cell growth isn’t limited merely to the skin. Current research is looking into its potential to combat multi-drug resistance in people with other types of cancer.
Research shows that silver thicket, or Euphorbia stenoclada, can help to keep our airways’ smooth muscle cells in check, thus making it a potential treatment for many lung infections and disorders.
Wart spurge, otherwise known as Euphorbia helioscopia or “madwoman’s milk,” can also help the body expel the phlegm that develops because of lung infections.
While some research indicates that it can help treat chronic bronchitis, evidence is minimal and doesn’t show any advantages over traditional therapies.
Other Uses of Euphorbia
Extracts of different kinds of Euphorbia have other potential medical functions. Different extracts have been used to treat diarrhea as well as to prevent bacterial and fungal infections. They might also help to fight the inflammation associated with various conditions, including arthritis.
While researchers continue to explore the usefulness of several members of the Euphorbia family, its use is strongly recommended only under the supervision of a trained physician.