Treatment of poisoning
Standard medical practice uses ipecac to cause vomiting in cases of poisoning in order to remove the toxic substance from the stomach before absorption occurs. It can be used on animals as well as humans. Ipecac is safer and more effective than many other methods for inducing vomiting, such as sticking a finger down a child's throat or using salt water. There are times, however, when ipecac should not be used because it can make certain kinds of poisoning worse. Syrup of ipecac should not be used if the poison is one of the following.
- alkalis (lye)
- strong acids
- fuel oil
- coal oil
- paint thinner
- cleaning fluid
Poisoning is a potentially serious condition. It is best to contact a local poison control center, local hospital emergency room, or the family doctor for instructions before using syrup of ipecac.
Ipecac's reputation for inducing vomiting has encouraged some bulimics to take it on a regular basis in order to purge the contents of the stomach after an eating binge. This misuse of ipecac is extremely dangerous; it can cause heart problems, tears in the esophagus or stomach lining, vomiting blood, seizures, or even death.
The homeopathic remedy made from ipecac is called Ipecacuanha. Homeopathic preparations are given for a reason completely opposite from that of standard allopathic treatment. In homeopathy, ipecac is given to stop vomiting rather than to induce it. According to Hahnemann's law of similars, a substance that would cause vomiting in large doses when given to a healthy person will stimulate a sick person's natural defenses when given in extremely dilute and carefully prepared doses. Ipecacuanha is a favorite homeopathic remedy for morning sickness associated with pregnancy. It is also given to stop nausea that is not relieved by vomiting; when the vomitus is slimy and white; when there is gagging and heavy salivation; when the tongue is clean despite the patient's feelings of nausea; and when the patient is not thirsty. The nausea may be accompanied by a headache, cough, or heavy menstrual bleeding. The modalities (circumstances) that suggest Ipecacuanha as the appropriate homeopathic remedy is that the patient feels worse lying down; in dry weather; in winter; and when exercising or moving about.
A homeopathic practitioner would not necessarily prescribe ipecac for all cases of nausea. Arsenicum would be given when the nausea is caused by food poisoning and accompanied by strong thirst, Nux vomica when the nausea is the result of overindulgence in food or alcohol and accompanied by gas or heartburn. A sick child might be given Pulsatilla, particularly if rich foods have been eaten.
On the other hand, a homeopathic practitioner may prescribe ipecac for any of the following conditions that are not related to nausea and vomiting.
- nosebleeds producing bright red blood
- dental bleeding
The medicinal effects of ipecac were recognized centuries ago by the Portuguese who settled in South America. They found a plant that can make people vomit and appropriately named it Caephalis ipecacuanha, meaning sick-making plant. Syrup of ipecac is now considered the safest drug to treat poisoning and is often the most effective. There are different types of ipecac preparations that vary greatly in strength. Syrup of ipecac is best for use at home to treat accidental poisoning. Ipecac fluid extract and ipecac tincture should be avoided as they are much stronger compounds and can be toxic.
Ipecacuanha is a homeopathic remedy made from ipecac by a process of dilution and succussion (shaking). In contrast to syrup of ipecac, it is given to relieve vomiting.
Syrup of ipecac
For inducing vomiting in cases of accidental poisoning, only the syrup form of ipecac should be used. Syrup of ipecac should not be mixed with milk or carbonated drinks as they may prevent vomiting.
Syrup of ipecac should not be used in the following situations (contact poison control center or family doctor for alternative treatments).
- poisoning caused by strychnine; sustained-release theophylline; such corrosive substances as strong alkalis (lye); strong acids (such as toilet bowl cleaner); and such petroleum products as kerosene, gasoline, coal oil, fuel oil, paint thinner, or cleaning fluids
- overdoses of medications given for depression
- excessive vomiting
- a serious heart condition
- timing. Do not give ipecac more than four to six hours after the poison was ingested
- very young children (less than six months old). Infants and very young children may choke on their own vomit or get vomit into their lungs
- drowsy or unconscious patients
Ipecacuanha should not be given after Arsenicum or Tabac because these remedies will counteract it.
The following side effects have been associated with the use of syrup of ipecac.
- loose bowel movements
- fast irregular heartbeat
- inhaling or choking on vomit
- stomach cramps or pains
- muscle stiffness
- severe heart problems often occur in cases of ipecac abuse (because ipecac stays in the body for a long time, damage to the heart frequently occurs in persons who repeatedly take ipecac to induce vomiting)
- seizures; these are most likely to occur in patients who accidentally swallow ipecac or in ipecac abusers
- death; deaths have been reported due to ipecac abuse in bulimic persons
Homeopathic Ipecacuanha has been highly diluted and is relatively nontoxic.
Ipecac should not be given together with other drugs because it can decrease their effectiveness and increase their toxicity. If both syrup of ipecac and activated charcoal are needed to treat suspected poisons, ipecac should be given first. Activated charcoal should not be given until vomiting induced by ipecac has stopped. Soda pop should also be avoided because it can cause the stomach to swell. The person should lie on the stomach or side in case vomiting occurs.
Homeopathic Ipecacuanha is considered complementary to Arnica and Cuprum. It is counteracted by Arsenicum and Tabac.
Cummings, Stephen, MD, and Dana Ullman, MPH. Everybody's Guide to Homeopathic Medicines. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1991.
Ellenhorn's Medical Toxicology, 2nd ed. Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins, 1997.
Hammond, Christopher. The Complete Family Guide to Homeopathy: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Safe and Effective Remedies. New York: Penguin Studio, 1995.
PDR Nurse's Drug Handbook. Montvale, NJ: Delmar Publishers, 2000.
American Foundation for Homeopathy. 1508 S. Garfield. Alhambra, CA 91801.
Homeopathic Educational Services. 2124B Kittredge St. Berkeley, CA 94704. (510) 649-0294. Fax: (510) 649-1955.
Cephaeline—A chemical compound found in ipecac that irritates the stomach lining and triggers the vomiting reflex.
Fluid extract—A concentrated preparation of a drug.
Law of similars—A principle of homeopathic treatment according to which substances that cause specific symptoms in healthy people are given to sick people with similar symptoms.
Modality—A factor or circumstance that makes a patient's symptoms better or worse. Modalities include such factors as time of day, room temperature, the patient's level of activity, sleep patterns, etc.
Tincture—An alcoholic solution of a chemical or drug.