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What Is the History of Laudanum?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Shereen Skola
  • Last Modified Date: 28 August 2014
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The history of laudanum began in the 16th and 17th centuries, when scientific researchers independently discovered that a tincture of opium could be made with alcohol as a base. Insoluble in water, the opium dissolved readily in alcohol to create a medication that would be easy to administer to patients. It became a popular ingredient in the so-called “patent medicines” sold in the 18th and 19th centuries, before falling under regulatory control in the early 20th century. Today, like most narcotic medications, it is carefully controlled in many nations to limit the risk of abuse.

Paracelsus, working in 16th century Germany, developed a version of laudanum which he claimed was derived from a recipe he found while traveling in the East. The precise composition of his formulation is not known, but it was expensive, and he limited it to his most wealthy patients. Physician Thomas Sydenham developed another formula in England in the 17th century, apparently independently of Paracelsus. His version became popularized, setting the stage for widespread use of the compound.

Patients primarily used laudanum for the management of coughing and acute pain. Like other opioids, this compound suppresses the cough reflex and can be used for intractable and uncomfortable coughing. It also dulls pain, and can help with both acute and chronic pain. Highly addictive, laudanum was also used as a recreational substance in some cases, including by patients who became dependent on the medication and couldn’t stop taking it once they no longer needed it.

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In the 18th and 19th century, a flowering of patent medicines rose up. These preparations were proprietary and contained a variety of ingredients, including compounds that were toxic or of dubious medical advantage. With no regulation to control what people marketed and sold to patients, formulators traveled Europe and the United States to hawk their preparations. Laudanum was a very popular ingredient in these compounds, which were marketed for everything from controlling nerves to treating coughs.

At the start of the 20th century, growing concern about patent medicines and the general lack of regulation when it came to foods and drugs spawned the Food and Drug Act of 1906. This groundbreaking legislation was designed to protect consumers from contaminated medications and food. Among other things, it paved the way to regulation of laudanum and other potentially hazardous compounds. Manufacturers were forced to follow specific standards in production to ensure drug purity and consistency, and consumers needed to go through medical providers to access the medication.

Laudanum is still manufactured today in some regions of the world. A variety of other opioids are also available of varying strengths to meet different needs. Many of these are tightly controlled because they are potentially hazardous to patients and can be addictive.

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