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What is Ipecac?

Ipecac is often used to induce vomiting.
Ipecac may be useful in treating ordinary croup in children.
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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 29 September 2014
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Ipecac is available in syrup form, and is used as an emetic to induce vomiting. Some cough mixtures may also use ipecac as an expectorant. In fact, people frequently used ipecac to treat croup in the early 19th century. While it might show results with ordinary croup, it was generally ineffective when used to treat croupy congestion caused by diphtheria.

Ipecac derives from the plant Ipecacuanha, which is native to Brazil. It was first introduced to Europeans in the 17th century. French physicians used it in a powdered form to treat dysentery. However, it soon became noted that ipecac induced vomiting and made an excellent expectorant. Thus people with chronic lung conditions or those with bronchitis might use it.

While most pediatricians recommend that anyone who parents or cares for children should keep ipecac on hand, they also advise one not to use it until they have been advised by a doctor or a Poison Control center to do so. Inducing vomiting after someone has eaten some types of toxic substances can cause significant harm.

In 2005, some physicians suggested that ipecac use was not recommended. Ipecac tends to cause children to become extremely sleepy or lethargic. This side effect of ipecac might confuse a diagnosing physician about the degree of certain poisons still left in the system after vomiting has occurred. Certain substances might also result in lethargy, making diagnosis more difficult.

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Also, a person who is actively vomiting may not be able to receive other treatments immediately. For example, overdoses of pills are often treated with activated charcoal. A person who is throwing up repeatedly may not be able to keep down orally administered charcoal long enough for it to be effective. This may result in lengthier hospitalization with intubation and charcoal delivered via nasal-gastric tube.

Since first line treatment for many incidences of poisoning is now orally taken activated charcoal, ipecac should only be used in when specific directions are given to use it. Further, some physicians are concerned about the abuse of ipecac among those with eating disorders. Since ipecac is an over the counter medication, it can be purchased by anyone, and may facilitate conditions like bulimia, which are life threatening.

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