Is Ipecac Syrup Always the Best Remedy?

Last Editorial Review: 1/30/2005

WebMD Feature

May 29, 2000 -- "Syrup of ipecac is the most important thing to have in your household in the event of a poisoning," says Rose Ann Soloway, RN, ABAT (a non-physician certification in clinical toxicology), associate director of the American Association of Poison Control Centers in Washington. "It's too late to run out and buy it after your child has already swallowed a toxic agent. You need immediate ingestion of it to limit the damage caused by the poison."

It?s important to know, however, that this syrup, which causes vomiting, is not always an appropriate remedy for an accidental poisoning. In some cases, vomiting can increase the damage caused by the poison. For this reason, ipecac should never be administered without first calling poison control or your pediatrician.

In fact, The Wall Street Journal reported in its February 25, 2000 issue that ipecac removes only 30% to 50% of the ingested substance. Keith M. Perrin, MD, a pediatrician at Napoleon Pediatrics in New Orleans, confirms this figure and recommends that a poisoned child be taken to the emergency room even after the syrup is administered. Another danger with ipecac, says Perrin, is administering too much, which can cause central nervous-system depression, resulting in decreased breathing and lethargy for 3 to 6 hours. Although age-appropriate dosages should be listed on the bottle of ipecac, the poison control center will advise you on how much to administer based on your child's weight.

Activated charcoal is another over-the-counter drug that is good to have on hand, although, like ipecac, it isn't useful for every poisoning and should never be administered without the go-ahead from Poison Control or your pediatrician. Activated charcoal can be mixed with water and drunk to absorb poisons, or it can be made into a paste and applied to the skin for topical poisonings (like an insect bite).

Milk and bread should also be kept on hand; they can be used to soak up and neutralize toxins in the body, including caustic agents, some paint chemicals, and substances that contain carbon. "Milk coats the mouth and decreases the burning sensation that many toxins induce," says Perrin. "Although you don't want to give the child so much milk that vomiting occurs, which would cause more burning in the mouth and possible aspiration (where something meant to be swallowed is accidentally inhaled, potentially blocking the airway)." In the case of some oils -- including furniture polish, kerosene oil, and motor oil -- Perrin recommends diluting the substance by having the child ingest milk and bread and allowing the oil to come out in the stool, instead of inducing vomiting. Again, milk or bread should not be offered for a poisoning unless Poison Control or your pediatrician say it's appropriate.

Jennifer Haupt, a freelance writer based in Bellevue, Wash., specializes in parenting issues and other lifestyle topics. Her writing has appeared in Parenting magazine, Parenting Insights, Seattle Magazine, and Seattle's Child.

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