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What is ricin?

How might I be exposed to ricin?

What are the symptoms of ricin exposure?

What is the treatment for ricin?

How are anthrax and ricin similar or different?

Where can I find additional information about ricin?  ¿En español? 


What is ricin?

Ricin is a poison found naturally in castor beans. If castor beans are chewed and swallowed, the released ricin can cause injury. Ricin can be made from the waste material left over from processing castor beans. It can be made in the form of a powder, a mist, or a pellet, or it can be dissolved in water or weak acid.


How might I be exposed to ricin?

  • You can be exposed to ricin either by ingesting (swallowing) or inhaling (breathing) material containing ricin.
  • It would take a deliberate act to make ricin and use it to poison people. Unintentional exposure to ricin is highly unlikely, except through the ingestion of castor beans.
  • If made into a partially purified material or refined into a terrorist or warfare agent, ricin could be used to expose people through the air, food, or water. Ricin poisoning is not contagious. It cannot spread from person to person through casual contact.

What are the symptoms of ricin exposure?

  • If ricin is ingested, initial symptoms include nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain. The symptoms of ricin poisoning are likely to rapidly progress over 12-24 hours to include problems such as severe dehydration, as well as kidney and liver problems.
  • If ricin is inhaled, initial symptoms may include difficulty breathing, shortness of breath, chest tightness, and cough. The symptoms of ricin inhalation are likely to rapidly progress over 12-24 hours to include problems such as pulmonary edema (fluid within the lungs), and eventually, respiratory failure.
  • Nevertheless, it is important to note that ricin is not the only potential cause of such symptoms, commonly encountered infectious foodborne illnesses or other illnesses due to chemicals and non-chemical causes (e.g., infectious) can also present with these signs and may be cause for concern.
  • Death from ricin poisoning can take place within 36 to 72 hours of exposure, depending on the route of exposure (inhalation, ingestion, or injection) and the dose received.

What is the treatment for ricin?

  • No antidote exists for ricin. Because no antidote exists, the most important factor is avoiding ricin exposure in the first place. If exposure occurs, the most important factor is getting the ricin off or out of the body as quickly as possible.
  • Ricin poisoning is treated by giving victims supportive medical care to minimize the effects of the poisoning. The types of supportive medical care would depend on several factors, such as the route by which victims were poisoned (that is, whether poisoning was by inhalation, ingestion, or skin or eye exposure).
  • Care could include such measures as helping victims breathe, giving them intravenous fluids (fluids given through a needle inserted into a vein), giving them medications to treat conditions such as seizure and low blood pressure, flushing their stomachs with activated charcoal (if the ricin has been very recently ingested), or washing out their eyes with water if their eyes are irritated.

How are anthrax and ricin similar or different?

  • Anthrax is an infectious organism of the spore form of a bacterium that can be dried, purified, and made into a powder which can be inhaled. After anthrax spores are inhaled, they can become active, reproduce in the body, and cause disease.
  • Ricin is a poison found naturally in castor beans. Ricin can be made from the waste material left over from processing castor beans and then purified, and treated to form a powder that can be inhaled, although this is a very technically difficult and complicated process.
  • Ricin and anthrax can be in the form of a fine powder which can be suspended in air, or “aerosolized”. Isolated attempts have been made in the U.S. to use the powder forms as a biological/chemical weapon.

 Where can I find additional information about ricin?