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What is an Emetic?

By Jessica Gore
Updated Jan 25, 2024
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An emetic is a substance that induces vomiting when ingested. Emetics have traditionally been employed to empty the stomach after certain kinds of poisoning, but have other cultural applications as well. These have been variously used for medicinal or even spiritual purposes across a diversity of cultures. Although the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) no longer recommends that emetics be routinely administered for poisoning accidents in children, study of ethnobotanical use of emetic plant species has potential to uncover new pharmaceutical treatments.

Ethnobotanical emetic use is well documented. The preparation ayahuasca from Banisteriopsis caapi, a native South American plant, is an integral part of physical and spiritual medicine in certain indigenous cultures. Use of the preparation frequently involves violent vomiting followed by hallucinogenic experiences. The cleansing and purifying effect of the emetic has been identified as a significant aspect of the spiritual process of ayahuasca use. Interestingly, Western medicine has identified compounds in Banisteriopsis caapi to be effective in the treatment of intestinal parasites, supporting the medicinal value of the purification ceremony.

The most common emetic used in Western medicine is syrup of ipecac. This is a solution prepared from the root of the South American ipecacuanha shrub. Upon ingestion, vomiting usually occurs within minutes, and continues until the full contents of the stomach has been purged. It is important to note that ipecac should only be administered under the advice of a poison control center, as certain types of poisoning are contraindicated for emetic treatment. Similarly, victims who are unconscious or otherwise incapacitated should never be induced to vomit, unless under the advice of a medical professional.

In 2010, the AAP rescinded advice that parents keep a one-ounce (30 ml) container of syrup of ipecac as part of home first-aid kits. Traditionally, parents were advised to induce vomiting in cases of accidental poisoning. The revised guidelines put forth by the AAP assert that there is, in fact, no empirical evidence to support this practice, and that no studies have shown induced vomiting to significantly influence mortality rates in poisoning cases.

As an alternative, the AAP recommends parents focus on poison prevention, by keeping any potentially toxic substances out of reach of children. In case of emergency, activated carbon, which binds to toxic substances and prevents absorption into the bloodstream, should be used in place of emetics. Whenever possible, a poison control center or other medical professional should always be consulted before attempting home treatment.

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Discussion Comments
By JessicaLynn — On Sep 12, 2011

@sunnySkys - Your friend is very brave for trying that, I think! I doubt that I would if I were in the same situation.

I think it's interesting when "folk" medicines are actually proven to have real benefits. I think in the next few years we're going to see more people in the medical and scientific community paying more attention to tradition remedies like ayahuasca.

By sunnySkys — On Sep 12, 2011

A good friend of mine took a trip to South America and tried ayahuasca. She said she had a pretty amazing spiritual experience after all the vomiting.

Personally, I hate throwing up. I don't think I would choose to throw up voluntarily, even if I did get to have some sort of spiritual awakening afterward.

I'd also like to point out that my friend didn't come back from South America with any parasites even though she ate a ton of local food. So I think the ayahuasca did it's just in that respect as well!

By popcorn — On Sep 11, 2011

One of the more interesting uses of emetic herbs was back in Ancient Rome. While we think of emetics now as a last resort for help with a poisoning back then they used them to binge and purge.

In Ancient Rome there was a lot of decadent overeating among the very rich and at large banquets with a big spread of food they would use emetics so that they could keep eating more and more.

This gluttony in Ancient Rome in my opinion could very well have been one of the first instances of modern day eating disorders. Back then, vomiting in public wasn't frowned upon, and stuffing yourself until you purged was a sign of being wealthy.

Perhaps this Ancient Roman trend continues nowadays, but just behind doors, and labeled as bulimia. I can't imagine how horrible it must be to eat that much and throw up, just so you can continue eating. It really takes all the self-control most people take for granted right out of the picture.

By letshearit — On Sep 11, 2011

When I was much younger my doctor gave me syrup of ipecac because it was one of the most common emetics. I was being young and dumb and swallowed a few things in the kitchen that I really shouldn't have. While not really deadly on their own, together they certainly made me one sick kid.

I remember being forced to drink the syrup of ipecac and thinking about how sick I was. I was violently ill after wards and swore never to drink anything strange again. Syrup of ipecac in my opinion works a little to well, and I swear I was damaging my stomach getting things back up.

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