Ipecac comes from the dried roots and rhizomes of the two plants Cephaelis acuminata and Cephaelis ipecacuanha which are part of the Rubiaceae family. Between the 16th and 19th centuries, ipecac was transported from the forests of South America to Europe’s capital cities. As the interest in the medicinal effects of ipecac grew during the 19th and 20th centuries, the pure alkaloid emetine, derived from the powdered root of ipecac, was used to treat amoebic dysentery. In low doses, ipecac was used as an expectorant.
Ipecac also was used to induce vomiting. In 1894, scientists discovered that ipecac consisted of two distinct alkaloids with homologous structures, emetine and cephaelin which cause ipecac’s emetic effects. Today, the emetic effects of ipecac are still used. Some parents keep the syrup of ipecac in case their children ingest harmful substances. However, the use of ipecac to induce vomiting is now discouraged. If someone has ingested any amount of poison, he should call one of the Poison Control Centers available nationally through a toll-free number (1-800-222-1222).
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