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Cicuta virosa, also called water hemlock or cowbane, is a plant that may look pretty, with its small white flowers, but it is actually highly poisonous. If ingested, it can kill a person or a livestock animal in a short period of time. Even though it is toxic, it has been used by homeopathic medicine practitioners to treat a variety of ailments, such as epilepsy, meningitis, and tetanus. The perennial plant grows from 2 to 4 feet (.61 to 1.2 m) tall. It typically makes its home in marshes, ditches, meadows, and along creak banks of Central and Northern Europe, Japan, and the northwestern portion of North America.
If the roots or stems of the Cicuta virosa are cut, a yellow-colored, oily resin will leak out. This resin smells quite pungent and contains cicutoxin, a toxic gamma-aminobutyric acid receptor antagonist. This substance is most deadly when it is fresh and reportedly loses most of its toxicity when it is dried.
The cicutoxin found in the resin of the Cicuta virosa works by disrupting the central nervous system. If an adult ingests the root of the plant, within one hour, she will experience abdominal pain and nausea. Next, the person may have tremors, convulsions, delirium, or seizures. It can result in respiratory paralysis, and ultimately, death. Because the body is affected so quickly, many people cannot receive medical attention in time.
The most common reason that people ingest Cicuta virosa is that they mistake it for another plant. Since it has a smell similar to wild parsnips, there have been reports of people ingesting the root, thinking it is a parsnip. In addition, there have been reports of people eating migratory birds who have consumed Cicuta virosa. In both cases, the people who did not receive prompt medical attention died.
If a person is poisoned, it is possible to survive if quick medical attention is received. Emergency workers will usually attempt to keep the airways open and maintain ventilation. There is not a known anti-toxin for Cicuta virosa, so medical personnel may prescribe drugs to decontaminate the stomach and intestines. They may also give the patient drugs to stop the convulsions, tremors, or seizures.
Although most people would not expect such a toxic plant to be used for homeopathic purposes, it is used on occasion. Specifically, it was used in the past to treat meningitis and epilepsy. Some homeopathic practitioners currently use a diluted amount of the root to treat tetanus and other ailments that cause spasms. Those practitioners believe that the resin of Cicuta virosa can be diluted. Once it is diluted, they claim it is no longer harmful to people.
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