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What is Ipecac?

Ipecac, an alkaline syrup used to induce vomiting after the accidental ingestion of a toxin, is deadly when abused – and sadly, a significant percentage of bulimics do experiment with or abuse ipecac regularly.

Times have changed, and although most every household used to show a bottle of ipecac in the medicine-cabinet for emergencies, doctors now very rarely recommend its use. Even in accidental poisonings, the risks of ipecac often outweigh the potential benefits.

Why Do Bulimics Use Ipecac?

20-30 minutes after ingesting the syrup, ipecac will induce intense stomach-purging vomiting. It takes everything out, and for some bulimics, this dramatic effect has considerable attraction.

Bulimics sometimes experiment with ipecac in the early stages of their disorder, when having some difficulty inducing vomiting; and some use it chronically in later stages of the disease, after a damaged gag reflex makes self-induced vomiting problematic. Bulimics that use ipecac with regularity are far more likely to be hospitalized with severe symptoms. They are also more likely to die from their disease. Ipecac abuse was a primary factor in the death of singer Karen Carpenter.

Many bulimics who experiment with ipecac find the resulting hours of vomiting too unpleasant to consider using the syrup systematically; conversely, some very ill patients are attracted by its incredible ability to induce a complete purge.

The real abuse statistics remain unknown, but it is estimated that about 10% of bulimics will experiment with ipecac, and about 1% will regularly abuse the drug.

What Are the Risks of Ipecac?

Because it causes such intense vomiting, ipecac abusers suffer greater dehydration and electrolyte imbalances and a greater risk of kidney, liver and heart disease.

The effects of the drug are frightening enough, but the syrup itself is arguably worse. Ipecac is toxic, meant only for one-time use in real emergencies. With regular use, the toxins in ipecac build in the muscles of the body, leading to muscle wasting. The heart, most dangerously, suffers this muscle wasting greatly, and in addition to worsened symptoms of fatigue and shortness of breath (common to most bulimics) ipecac users also run a greatly increased risk of complete heart failure - Ipecac abuse is deadly.

Anyone abusing ipecac needs immediate intervention and treatment. Chronic abuse indicates a hardened and progressed phase of the disorder, and the dangers of continued ipecac are so great that loved-ones can never allow for its continued use. Anyone using ipecac needs help right now.

In response to a reduced perceived need to sell ipecac for emergencies, and because of its widespread abuse, regulators are exploring restrictions on the sale of the medication.

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Page last updated Oct 01, 2011

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