Medscape is available in 5 Language Editions – Choose your Edition here.


Ricin Exposure Treatment & Management

  • Author: Ferdinando L Mirarchi, DO; Chief Editor: Zygmunt F Dembek, PhD, MPH, MS, LHD  more...
Updated: Sep 28, 2015

Approach Considerations

Emergency department (ED) management begins with universal precautions and the ABCs (airway, breathing, and circulation); a “D” may be added for decontamination (including the removal of garments). If the history and presenting findings suggest that ingestion is possible, gut decontamination should be considered as well.

Treatment depends on the route of exposure. Treatment is supportive, and no antidote for ricin is available. All symptomatic patients should be admitted to the hospital. After ingestion and inhalation, the clinical course typically progresses over 4-36 hours, and monitoring in an intensive care unit (ICU) may be warranted. Children with severe systemic toxicity should be transferred to a center capable of handling critically ill children. This should occur after the child has been stabilized and whole-bowel decontamination initiated.

There is no definitive antidote for ricin poisoning. The only effective way of managing ricin toxicity is to prevent it. Candidate vaccines and ricin inhibitors (eg, pteroic acid, neopterin, pterin tautomer, and guanine tautomer) are being investigated either as antidotes or as means of facilitating immunotoxin treatment. Some promising results have been obtained; however, vaccine trials still require additional testing for safety and efficacy.


Supportive Care

Universal precautions must be strictly adhered to at all times. The risk of secondary aerosolization is minimal. Protective masks, which are effective in preventing toxicity, should be used when an overt aerosol attack is suspected.


The first priority in treating a patient with castor bean poisoning is to establish that the patient’s airway is patent and that breathing and circulation are adequate. Supportive care based on clinical symptoms is the primary therapy.

Any symptomatic patient should be admitted and monitored, and aggressive intravenous (IV) volume resuscitation should be initiated. Hypotension should be treated with isotonic fluids and packed red blood cells as needed. A vasopressor-type agent (eg, dopamine or norepinephrine) should be employed when needed.


Decontamination begins by removing garments and cleaning the body. If available, a 0.5% sodium hypochlorite solution should be used, with a contact time of 15 minutes. It should not be instilled into open abdominal, brain, or spinal cord injuries or into the eyes; however, it can be instilled into noncavity wounds and then removed via suction into disposable containers. This discarded solution is neutralized and nonhazardous in 5 minutes.

To make a 0.5% sodium hypochlorite solution, mix 1 part bleach and 9 parts water. Make it fresh daily with a pH in the alkaline range. In the absence of this solution, copious amounts of soap and water may be used.

Care with specific routes of exposure

For dermal exposure, a weak sodium hypochlorite solution (0.1-0.5%), soap and water, or both typically suffice to decontaminate the skin.

For gastrointestinal (GI) exposure, institute gastric decontamination with superactivated charcoal and volume replacement. Laboratory evaluation should include chemistry panels, a complete blood count (CBC), a liver function panel, blood urea nitrogen (BUN) and creatinine levels, urinalysis, and blood type and screening.

For percutaneous exposure, treatment should be based on excision of the injection site, if possible, within the shortest amount of time. Baseline laboratory information should be obtained, including arterial blood gas values and fibrinogen. Although antibiotics play no role in the treatment of ricin, withholding such therapy in an acutely septic-appearing patient would be difficult. Antibiotics may serve to prevent infection resulting from the percutaneous mechanism. Tetanus immunization status should be updated if unknown.

For aerosol or pulmonary exposure, standard critical care treatment should be directed toward acute lung injury and pulmonary edema. A low threshold should be maintained to secure the patient’s airway and ensure adequate oxygenation and ventilation. A chest radiograph, which may show infiltrates, should be obtained. The clinical course progresses despite antibiotic therapy.

Whole-bowel irrigation

In theory, rapid elimination of the bean from the GI tract before erosion of the outer shell may decrease or prevent the release of potent toxins. Accordingly, whole-bowel irrigation (WBI) has been suggested as a means of ensuring rapid and complete decontamination of the GI tract; however, the clinical use of WBI has not been demonstrated.

WBI is accomplished by continuously instilling a polyethylene glycol electrolyte lavage solution through the GI tract until the effluent from the rectum is clear or all of the beans have been recovered. Inserting a nasogastric tube and setting a continuous flow rate will accomplish WBI best. Irrigation rates vary according to age as follows:

  • Age 0-6 years - Flow rate, 500 mL/h
  • Age 6-12 years - Flow rate, 1000 mL/h
  • Age >12 years - Flow rate, 1500-2000 mL/h

It is advisable to consult with a medical toxicologist at the nearest regional poison control center before undertaking WBI.

Further inpatient care

IV fluids should be continued at a rate that maintains adequate hydration and replacement of electrolytes. Beans should be counted to ensure complete recovery. Patients should remain under observation for at least 4-6 hours; after this period, they may be safely discharged if they are asymptomatic. Antispasmodics, such as loperamide, are contraindicated.



Surgical consultation for local excision and removal is warranted for parenteral exposures when a retained foreign body is located.

All exposures should be reported to the regional poison control center. The American Association of Poison Control Centers (AAPCC) is the only national organization currently tracking all potentially poisonous ingestions and may be helpful in bean identification. Expert consultation with a trained toxicologist is also recommended and can be obtained at the regional poison control center.



To minimize the risk of accidental ingestion of plant toxins such as ricin, efforts should be made to keep all potentially poisonous and injurious plants and plant-related products away from children. Homes should be purged of all potentially toxic plant items, just as they are purged of medications and cleaning supplies. In addition, children should be specifically instructed never to eat wild plants, beans, or berries.

For a biologic attack involving ricin, the only effective management is prevention; unfortunately, no prophylaxis exists. In an aerosol attack, protective masks are effective in preventing toxicity and should be used.

Currently, investigations of vaccines are ongoing. Candidate vaccines include RVEc (developed by the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases) and RiVax (Soligenix, Princeton, NJ).[14, 15, 16, 17] RVEc has been tested in human volunteers, who subsequently developed antibodies to the toxin. RiVax been found to be safe in healthy human volunteers, in whom they stimulated the production of antibodies.[18]  [19] A Phase 1B study of RiVax has also been successully completed.[20] In animal testing, rhesus macacques vaccinated with RiVax were protected against ricin aerosol exposure.[21] Further human testing is necessary.

Ricin inhibitors are also being studied. Certain 6-substituted pterins (eg, pteroic acid) have shown promise in this setting. A study by Pruet et al suggested that 7-carboxy pterin and derivatives thereof may prove useful as part of a program to make effective ricin toxin A chain inhibitors.[22]

O’Hara et al found that passive administration of 10 µg of GD12—a murine monoclonal immunoglobulin G (IgG) antibody to an epitope on the A chain of ricin toxin—or a chimeric derivative (cGD12) to mice via intraperitoneal injection protected the animals against a systemic ricin challenge.[23] After exposure, the two antibodies, administered up to 6 hours after toxin challenge, were each capable of rescuing mice from toxin-induced death, suggesting that GD12 might have both prophylactic and therapeutic potential for ricin intoxication.

Contributor Information and Disclosures

Ferdinando L Mirarchi, DO Medical Director, Department of Emergency Medicine, UPMC-Hamot Medical Center; Academic Core Faculty for UPMC Hamot Medical Center, Emergency Medicine Residency Program

Ferdinando L Mirarchi, DO is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Emergency Medicine, American College of Emergency Physicians, American College of Osteopathic Emergency Physicians, Emergency Medicine Residents' Association

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.


Gerald F O'Malley, DO Clinical Associate Professor of Emergency Medicine, Albert Einstein Medical Center

Gerald F O'Malley, DO is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Emergency Medicine, American College of Emergency Physicians, American College of Medical Toxicology, American College of Osteopathic Emergency Physicians, American Osteopathic Association, Society for Academic Emergency Medicine

Disclosure: Received consulting fee from McNeil Pharmaceuticals for speaking and teaching.

Chief Editor

Zygmunt F Dembek, PhD, MPH, MS, LHD Associate Professor, Department of Military and Emergency Medicine, Adjunct Assistant Professor, Department of Preventive Medicine and Biometrics, Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, F Edward Hebert School of Medicine

Zygmunt F Dembek, PhD, MPH, MS, LHD is a member of the following medical societies: American Chemical Society, New York Academy of Sciences

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.


Michael P Allswede, DO Program Director, Disaster and Emergency Medicine Residency, Conemaugh Memorial Hospital; Director, Strategic Medical Intelligence, Inc

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Jerry L Mothershead, MD Medical Readiness Consultant, Medical Readiness and Response Group, Battelle Memorial Institute; Advisor, Technical Advisory Committee, Emergency Management Strategic Healthcare Group, Veteran's Health Administration; Adjunct Associate Professor, Department of Military and Emergency Medicine, Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences

Jerry L Mothershead, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American College of Emergency Physicians and National Association of EMS Physicians

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Francisco Talavera, PharmD, PhD Adjunct Assistant Professor, University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Pharmacy; Editor-in-Chief, Medscape Drug Reference

Disclosure: Medscape Salary Employment

  1. Suchard JR. Biological Weapons. Nelson LS, Lewin NA, Howland MA, et al, eds. Goldfrank's Toxicologic Emergencies. 9th ed. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill; 2010. 1756.

  2. Pita R, Romero A. Toxins as Weapons: A Historical Review. Forensic Sci Rev. 2014 Jul. 26 (2):85-96. [Medline].

  3. Poli MP, Roy C, Huebner KD, Franz DR, Jaax NK. Ricin. Dembek ZF. Medical Aspects of Biological Warfare. 2nd ed. Washington DC: Office of the Surgeon General; 2007. 323-335. [Full Text].

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Biosafety in Microbiological and Biomedical Laboratories (BMBL) 5th Edition. Section VIII-G: Toxin Agents. Available at Accessed: September 2, 2015.

  5. Mowry JB, Spyker DA, Cantilena LR Jr, McMillan N, Ford M. 2013 Annual Report of the American Association of Poison Control Centers' National Poison Data System (NPDS): 31st Annual Report. Clin Toxicol (Phila). 2014 Dec. 52 (10):1032-283. [Medline]. [Full Text].

  6. Palmer ME, Betz JM. Plants. Nelson LS, Lewin NA, Howland MA, et al, eds. Goldfrank's Toxicologic Emergencies. 9th ed. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill; 2010. 1550.

  7. Iserson KV. Demon Doctors: Physicians as Serial Killers. 1. Austerlitz, NY: Galen Press; May 15, 2002. 441.

  8. CDC and Public Health Training Network. Recognition, Management and Surveillance of Ricin-Associated Illness [Web cast script]. December 30, 2003. [Full Text].

  9. Audi J, Belson M, Patel M, Schier J, Osterloh J. Ricin poisoning: a comprehensive review. JAMA. 2005 Nov 9. 294(18):2342-51. [Medline].

  10. Smith M, Cratty C. Feds: Mississippi man arrested in ricin scare. Web site. Available at Accessed: 2013 Apr 17.

  11. Knight B. Ricin - a potent homicidal poison. British Medical Journal. 1979 Feb 3. 1(6159):350-351. [Medline].

  12. Kostov V. The Bulgarian Umbrella: The Soviet Direction and Operations of the Bulgarian Secret Service in Europe. 1. NY, NY: Harvester Press; January 1, 1988. 204.

  13. Timeline: UK ricin terror probe. January 23, 2003. [Full Text].

  14. Smallshaw JE, Vitetta ES. Ricin vaccine development. Curr Top Microbiol Immunol. 2012. 357:259-72. [Medline].

  15. Olson MA, Carra JH, Roxas-Duncan V, Wannemacher RW, Smith LA, Millard CB. Finding a new vaccine in the ricin protein fold. Protein Eng Des Sel. 2004 Apr. 17(4):391-7. [Medline].

  16. Hayden EC, Wadman M. US ricin attacks are more scary than harmful. Nature. Available at Accessed: 2013 Apr 18.

  17. O'Hara JM, Brey RN 3rd, Mantis NJ. Comparative Efficacy in Mice of Two Lead Candidate Ricin Toxin A Subunit (RTA) Vaccines. Clin Vaccine Immunol. 2013 Mar 20. [Medline].

  18. Doan LG. Ricin: mechanism of toxicity, clinical manifestations, and vaccine development. A review. J Toxicol Clin Toxicol. 2004. 42(2):201-8. [Medline].

  19. Smallshaw JE, Vitetta ES. Ricin vaccine development. Curr Top Microbiol Immunol. 2012. 357:259-272. [Medline]. [Full Text].

  20. Vitetta ES, Smallshaw JE, Schindler J. Pilot phase IB clinical trial of an alhydrogel-adsorbed recombinant ricin vaccine. Clin Vaccine Immunol. 2012. 19:1697-1619. [Medline].

  21. Roy CJ, Brey RN, Mantis NJ, Mapes K, Pop IV, Pop LM, et al. Thermostable ricin vaccine protects rhesus macaques against aerosolized ricin: Epitope-specific neutralizing antibodies correlate with protection. PNAS. March 24, 2015. 112:3782-3787. [Medline]. [Full Text].

  22. Pruet JM, Jasheway KR, Manzano LA, Bai Y, Anslyn EV, Robertus JD. 7-Substituted pterins provide a new direction for ricin A chain inhibitors. Eur J Med Chem. 2011 Sep. 46(9):3608-15. [Medline]. [Full Text].

  23. O'Hara JM, Whaley K, Pauly M, Zeitlin L, Mantis NJ. Plant-based expression of a partially humanized neutralizing monoclonal IgG directed against an immunodominant epitope on the ricin toxin A subunit. Vaccine. 2012 Feb 8. 30(7):1239-43. [Medline]. [Full Text].

Castor bush.
Castor beans.
All material on this website is protected by copyright, Copyright © 1994-2016 by WebMD LLC. This website also contains material copyrighted by 3rd parties.