What is Strychnine?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Strychnine is a white alkaloid with a crystalline structure that is extracted from Nux Vomica and related plants. In small doses, it has been used historically as a stimulant in both humans and animals; in larger doses, strychnine is fatal. It is also a common ingredient in pesticides, which is a concern for some people since it may be ingested by unintended victims, such as neighborhood dogs.

Strychnine is a common ingredient in pesticides.
Strychnine is a common ingredient in pesticides.

Nux Vomica is a tree native to Southeast Asia. The seeds are the primary source of strychnine, although the tree's bark also contains small amounts of toxic alkaloids. Strychnine has been used for centuries. Nux Vomica is frequently prescribed in homeopathy, in the form of a highly diluted medicine which contains negligible amounts of strychnine. People have also used this compound as a stimulant; athletes, for example, took it at the turn of the 20th century to improve their performance. The substance has been linked with several accidental deaths due to this practice; modern athletes generally do not use it as a performance aid because of the risks.

Strychnine is fatal in large doses.
Strychnine is fatal in large doses.

The fatal dosage of strychnine is not very large. When an animal ingests a fatal dose, the result is a rapid onset of spasms, muscle contractions, and lack of muscle control. One of the characteristic signs of poisoning is an arched back and the instant appearance of rigor mortis after death. Most cases of death are caused by respiratory spasms which cut off the victim's air supply.

Intravenous fluids and medications may be part of a treatment for strychnine poisoning.
Intravenous fluids and medications may be part of a treatment for strychnine poisoning.

There is no antidote to strychnine poisoning, although several substances can be used to treat it. Some medical professionals may use activated charcoal to try and flush the toxin out of the patient, and historically tannin was used in an attempt to neutralize the substance so that the patient could express it safely. Modern treatment for strychnine poisoning also includes intravenous fluids and drugs to treat the painful muscle spasms associated with the condition.

Humans can ingest strychnine by breathing it, absorbing it through their skin, or swallowing it. If someone starts to display signs of poisoning, they should seek medical attention immediately. Rapid medical care is crucial to help a patient survive; the same goes for animals who ingest it accidentally. People with household pets or a large concentration of neighborhood animals may want to to consider the use of traps for pests, rather than poisonous substances, to avoid tragic accidents. In any case of poisoning, people should try to bring a sample of the poison with them so that medical personnel can test it.

Strychnine, which can be toxic in certain doses, is commonly used in pesticides.
Strychnine, which can be toxic in certain doses, is commonly used in pesticides.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments

starrynight

@Azuza - Yeah, that sounds a little bit crazy to me too. I'm really glad I read this article though. I had no idea this was such a common ingredient in pesticides!

I mean, I know most pesticides can be harmful to animals. That's why I try to use more natural stuff like boric acid around my apartment. I know not everyone reads warning labels though. It seems like it wouldn't be that far fetched to accidentally kill a neighbors pet with this stuff. I know in the neighborhood I grew up in, neighborhood dogs would sometimes make it into our yard.

I'm definitely going to keep a look out for this stuff if I need to buy pesticides in the future.

Azuza

Wow this stuff sounds scary! Especially because there isn't even an antidote to it. I think it was especially reckless for athlete's to use this as a performance enhancing stimulant.

I know there is a lot of pressure for athlete's to perform. However, I can't imagine taking something that could possibly be fatal just to do better at a sport! And because a fatal does isn't that big, I think it would be really easy to accidentally overdose on this stuff.

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