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Toxicol Rev. 2005;24(2):93-106.

Poisoning due to pyrethroids.

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National Poisons Information Service (Birmingham Centre), City Hospital, UK.


The first pyrethroid pesticide, allethrin, was identified in 1949. Allethrin and other pyrethroids with a basic cyclopropane carboxylic ester structure are type I pyrethroids. The insecticidal activity of these synthetic pyrethroids was enhanced further by the addition of a cyano group to give alpha-cyano (type II) pyrethroids, such as cypermethrin. The finding of insecticidal activity in a group of phenylacetic 3-phenoxybenzyl esters, which lacked the cyclopropane ring but contained the alpha-cyano group (and hence were type II pyrethroids) led to the development of fenvalerate and related compounds. All pyrethroids can exist as at least four stereoisomers, each with different biological activities. They are marketed as racemic mixtures or as single isomers. In commercial formulations, the activity of pyrethroids is usually enhanced by the addition of a synergist such as piperonyl butoxide, which inhibits metabolic degradation of the active ingredient. Pyrethroids are used widely as insecticides both in the home and commercially, and in medicine for the topical treatment of scabies and headlice. In tropical countries mosquito nets are commonly soaked in solutions of deltamethrin as part of antimalarial strategies. Pyrethroids are some 2250 times more toxic to insects than mammals because insects have increased sodium channel sensitivity, smaller body size and lower body temperature. In addition, mammals are protected by poor dermal absorption and rapid metabolism to non-toxic metabolites. The mechanisms by which pyrethroids alone are toxic are complex and become more complicated when they are co-formulated with either piperonyl butoxide or an organophosphorus insecticide, or both, as these compounds inhibit pyrethroid metabolism. The main effects of pyrethroids are on sodium and chloride channels. Pyrethroids modify the gating characteristics of voltage-sensitive sodium channels to delay their closure. A protracted sodium influx (referred to as a sodium 'tail current') ensues which, if it is sufficiently large and/or long, lowers the action potential threshold and causes repetitive firing; this may be the mechanism causing paraesthesiae. At high pyrethroid concentrations, the sodium tail current may be sufficiently great to prevent further action potential generation and 'conduction block' ensues. Only low pyrethroid concentrations are necessary to modify sensory neurone function. Type II pyrethroids also decrease chloride currents through voltage-dependent chloride channels and this action probably contributes the most to the features of poisoning with type II pyrethroids. At relatively high concentrations, pyrethroids can also act on GABA-gated chloride channels, which may be responsible for the seizures seen with severe type II poisoning. Despite their extensive world-wide use, there are relatively few reports of human pyrethroid poisoning. Less than ten deaths have been reported from ingestion or following occupational exposure. Occupationally, the main route of pyrethroid absorption is through the skin. Inhalation is much less important but increases when pyrethroids are used in confined spaces. The main adverse effect of dermal exposure is paraesthesiae, presumably due to hyperactivity of cutaneous sensory nerve fibres. The face is affected most commonly and the paraesthesiae are exacerbated by sensory stimulation such as heat, sunlight, scratching, sweating or the application of water. Pyrethroid ingestion gives rise within minutes to a sore throat, nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain. There may be mouth ulceration, increased secretions and/or dysphagia. Systemic effects occur 4-48 hours after exposure. Dizziness, headache and fatigue are common, and palpitations, chest tightness and blurred vision less frequent. Coma and convulsions are the principal life-threatening features. Most patients recover within 6 days, although there were seven fatalities among 573 cases in one series and one among 48 cases in another. Management is supportive. As paraesthesiae usually resolve in 12-24 hours, specific treatment is not generally required, although topical application of dl-alpha tocopherol acetate (vitamin E) may reduce their severity.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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