Rose Thorn Disease

Yvonne Brault, M.D, contributing editor, American Rose, September/October 2019

ROSE THORN DISEASE, also called Rose gardener’s disease or Rose picker’s disease, is a disease caused by the yeast-like fungus Sporothrix schenckii, discovered in 1896 when isolated from human tissue by Benjamin Schenck, a medical student at Johns Hopkins Hospital. This fungus exists everywhere in the environment, but is most commonly found where there is dirt and decomposing plant material, as with hay and roses and moss. The disease is called Sporothricosis, and is characterized by non-healing ulcers of the skin, and can spread to the lymphatic system in humans, and wreak havoc for many organ systems. It is most commonly seen when the skin is injured by a prick from a contaminated rose thorn, with or without a retained piece of the thorn in the skin. Obviously, we all have been pricked by a rose thorn! Thankfully, not all rose thorns carry the fungus.

After the initial injury to the skin, a small nodule develops one-to-10 weeks later, usually painless and less than one cm., and may be reddish or light purple in color. This bump, commonly on the hand or finger or arm, is most often thought to be a bacterial infection upon initial presentation, and the patient is placed on a course of antibiotics to kill Staph or Strep, the most common bacterial culprits. However, when the wound does not heal and becomes ulcerated or open, further investigation and treatment is needed, and when this fungus is uncovered, treatment with antifungal medication is needed for several months.

If you have a piece of rose thorn retained in the skin after an injury, this foreign body can certainly cause localized inflammation and pain. We do not like foreign bodies in our skin! To remove a piece of rose thorn or a sliver, wash the area carefully (don’t soak initially as the thorn or wood may soften, making it more difficult to remove) and use a sharp tweezers or forceps to gently pull on and remove. If there is not enough of the thorn to pull on and remove it, you may gently ease it out with a sharp needle sterilized with alcohol or flame. DO NOT dig deeply and blindly into your skin to remove something you cannot see!

It may work its way out on its own, or let your doctor explore the wound if needed. Once removed, or while waiting for it to work itself out, soak the skin with warm soapy water two-to-three times daily and keep an eye out for any further signs of developing infection. As always, with any skin puncture or injury, make sure your tetanus status is up-to-date, and get a booster if needed. Check with your health care professional.

The fungal skin disease may lead to infection within the lymphatic system of the body, causing ulcerated skin lesions along the line of lymph drainage. Think non-healing lesions in a line moving toward the body. Not only are these advancing and possibly leading to further disease elsewhere, they are open and can get secondarily infected with bacteria. This fungus has been known to cause various diseases within the body including arthritis and pneumonia and meningitis. For any non-healing ulcerated lesions of the skin, see your doctor! You may need anti-fungal medication for several months to eradicate the fungus from your body.

We have all heard about protecting our skin with gloves when we are working with our beloved roses. Prevention is the key! Gauntlet-type gloves protect our arms as well as our hands, and a great pair of puncture-proof gardening gloves can prevent skin injuries to our hands and fingers. Cover the legs as well with denim, and wear good shoes to protect your feet. Stay safe in the garden!