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J Adolesc Health. 2005 Sep;37(3):256-60.

Ipecac syrup abuse, morbidity, and mortality: isn't it time to repeal its over-the-counter status?

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  • 1Division of Adolescent Medicine, Children's National Medical Center, Washington, DC 20010-2970, USA.



To review and address the abuse of ipecac, describing its epidemiology, toxicity, clinical characteristics, and laboratory assessment.


A Medline search (1980-2003) for Ipecac abuse and Ipecac toxicity, n = 34.


Ipecac abuse occurs predominantly among adolescent and young adult females who are either experimenting with purging or have an eating disorder. Psychiatric comorbidity is common. Death can occur and is usually of cardiac origin. Morbidity includes myocarditis with arrhythmias, myositis, gastroesophageal pathology, including Mallory Weiss tears, diarrhea, and metabolic abnormalities (alkalosis, hypokalemia, dehydration). The injuries can reverse with cessation of ipecac use. A high index of suspicion is needed for early detection. Classic findings are abnormal EKG and echocardiography and/or elevation of muscle enzymes (CPK, adolase). Emetine, the alkaloid in ipecac, can be confirmed in serum, urine, and tissue by high performance liquid chromatography.


Ipecac abuse is dangerous, even deadly. However, if abuse is discontinued, cardiac and muscle damage tends to reverse. Were ipecac syrup to remain an over- the-counter medication, or become a prescription medication, more stringent warning labels ought to be included and further education be provided about its toxicity and potential for abuse. Removing ipecac from the over-the-counter category would best eliminate its potential for abuse.

[PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]
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