Ipecac (Cephalis ipecacuanha)
Ipecac (Cephalis ipecacuanha)

There are two categories of ipecac preparations— a syrup used in standard medical practice and a homeopathic remedy. They are given for different purposes. The medicinal effects of ipecac were recognized centuries ago by the Portuguese who settled in South America.

They found a plant that can make people vomit and appropriately named it Cephalis ipecacuanha, meaning sick-making plant. Nowadays, ipecac is used to treat a variety of conditions. Its most widely accepted use is to induce vomiting in cases of accidental poisoning.

When ipecac is swallowed, a substance in it called cephaeline irritates the stomach and causes vomiting. Syrup of ipecac is now considered the safest drug to treat poisoning and is often the most effective.

There are different types of ipecac preparations that vary greatly in strength. Syrup of ipecac is best for use at home to treat accidental poisoning. Ipecac fluid extract and ipecac tincture should be avoided, as they are much stronger compounds and can be toxic.

Ipecacuanha is a homeopathic remedy made from ipecac by a process of dilution and succussion (shaking). In contrast to syrup of ipecac, it is given to relieve vomiting.

General use

Treatment of poisoning

to cause vomiting in cases of poisoning
to cause vomiting in cases of poisoning

Standard medical practice uses ipecac to cause vomiting in cases of poisoning in order to remove the toxic substance from the stomach before absorption occurs. It can be used on animals as well as humans. Ipecac is safer and more effective than many other methods for inducing vomiting, such as sticking a finger down a child’s throat or using saltwater.

There are times, however, when ipecac should not be used because it can make certain kinds of poisoning worse. Syrup of ipecac should not be used if the poison is one of the following.
  • strychnine
  • alkalis (lye)
  • strong acids
  • kerosene
  • fuel oil
  • gasoline
  • coal oil
  • paint thinner
  • cleaning fluid

Poisoning is a potentially serious condition. It is best to contact a local poison control center, local hospital emergency room, or the family doctor for instructions before using syrup of ipecac.

Ipecac’s reputation for inducing vomiting has encouraged some bulimics to take it on a regular basis in order to purge the contents of the stomach after an eating binge. This misuse of ipecac is extremely dangerous; it can cause heart problems, tears in the esophagus or stomach lining, vomiting blood, seizures, or even death.


The homeopathic remedy made from ipecac is called Ipecacuanha. Homeopathic preparations are given for a reason completely opposite from that of standard allopathic treatment. In homeopathy, ipecac is given to stop vomiting rather than to induce it.

According to Hahnemann’s law of similars, a substance that would cause vomiting in large doses when given to a healthy person will stimulate a sick person’s natural defenses when given in extremely diluted and carefully prepared doses. Ipecacuanha is a favorite homeopathic remedy for morning sickness associated with pregnancy.

It is also given to stop nausea that is not relieved by vomiting; when the vomitus is slimy and white; when there is gagging and heavy salivation; when the tongue is clean despite the patient’s feelings of nausea; and when the patient is not thirsty.

The nausea may be accompanied by a headache, cough, or heavy menstrual bleeding. The modalities (circumstances) that suggest Ipecacuanha as the appropriate homeopathic remedy is that the patient feels worse lying down; in dry weather; in winter; and when exercising or moving about.

A homeopathic practitioner would not necessarily prescribe ipecac for all cases of nausea. Arsenicum would be given when the nausea is caused by food poisoning and accompanied by strong thirst, Nux vomica when the nausea is the result of overindulgence in food or alcohol and accompanied by gas or heartburn. A sick child might be given Pulsatilla, particularly if rich foods have been eaten.

On the other hand, a homeopathic practitioner may prescribe ipecac for any of the following conditions that are not related to nausea and vomiting.
  • nosebleeds producing bright red blood
  • dental bleeding
  • diarrhea with cramping abdominal pain. The stools are green with froth or foam.
  • Asthma of sudden onset. The patient has to sit up in order to breathe, but cannot bring up any mucus in spite of violent coughing.
  • hoarseness or loss of voice following a cold
  • physical or mental exhaustion


Syrup of ipecac

Syrup of ipecac is made from the dried roots and rhizomes (underground stems) of Cephaelis ipecacuanha. It is available over the counter in 0.5–1 oz bottles. Larger bottles require a doctor’s prescription.

The dosage for infants under 6 months old should be prescribed by the family doctor or poison control center. For children six months to one year, the usual dose is 5–10 ml or 1–2 tsp. One-half or one full glass (4–8 oz) of water should be taken immediately before or after the dose.

The dose may be repeated once after 20–30 minutes if vomiting does not occur. For children one to 12 years of age, the usual dose is 15 ml (1 tbsp) to be taken with one full glass (8 oz) of water. Adults and teenagers should take 15–30 ml of ipecac with at least 1 full glass of water.

Ipecac illustration
Ipecac illustration

Syrup of ipecac should not be taken with milk or soda drinks as these foods may prevent it from working properly. If vomiting does not occur within 20–30 minutes after the first dose, a second dose may be needed. If the second dose fails to induce vomiting, the patient should be taken to a hospital emergency room.

If both activated charcoal and syrup of ipecac are recommended to treat poison, ipecac must be used first. Activated charcoal should not be taken until 30 minutes after taking syrup of ipecac, or until the vomiting caused by ipecac stops.

Homeopathic preparations

Ipecacuanha is available as an over-the-counter remedy in 30x potency. This is a decimal potency, which means that one part of ipecac has been mixed with nine parts of alcohol or water; 30x means that this decimal dilution has been repeated 30 times. The dilute solution of ipecac is then added to sugar tablets so that the remedy can be taken in tablet form.


Syrup of ipecac

For inducing vomiting in cases of accidental poisoning, only the syrup form of ipecac should be used. Syrup of ipecac should not be mixed with milk or carbonated drinks as they may prevent vomiting.

If syrup of ipecac is not immediately available in the home, it generally cannot be used. A 2002 report studied parents’ attempts to administer the syrup upon calling a poison center when they felt they could obtain it within 15 minutes.

However, actual time to administration was generally closer to 30 minutes. The report recommended that parents not be referred to purchase ipecac when their children have ingested a significant amount of a poisonous substance and the syrup is not already available in the home.

Syrup of ipecac should not be used in the following situations (contact poison control center or family doctor for alternative treatments).
  • Poisoning caused by strychnine; sustained-release theophylline; such corrosive substances as strong alkalis (lye); strong acids (such as toilet bowl cleaner); and such petroleum products as kerosene, gasoline, coal oil, fuel oil, paint thinner, or cleaning fluids.
  • Overdoses of medications given for depression.
  • Excessive vomiting.
  • A serious heart condition.
  • Timing. Do not give ipecac more than 4–6 hours after the poison was ingested.
  • Pregnancy.
  • Very young children (less than six months old). Infants and very young children may choke on their own vomit or get vomit into their lungs.
  • Drowsy or unconscious patients.
  • Seizures.

Homeopathic preparations

Ipecacuanha should not be given after Arsenicum or Tabac because these remedies will counteract it.

Side effects

The following side effects have been associated with the use of syrup of ipecac.
  • Loose bowel movements.
  • Diarrhea.
  • Fast irregular heartbeat.
  • Inhaling or choking on vomit.
  • Stomach cramps or pains.
  • Coughing.
  • Weakness.
  • Aching.
  • Muscle stiffness.
  • Severe heart problems often occur in cases of ipecac abuse. Because ipecac stays in the body for a long time, damage to the heart frequently occurs in persons who repeatedly take ipecac to induce vomiting.
  • Seizures. These are most likely to occur in patients who accidentally swallow ipecac or in ipecac abusers.
  • Death. Deaths have been reported due to ipecac abuse in bulimic persons.

Homeopathic Ipecacuanha has been highly diluted and is relatively nontoxic.


Ipecac should not be given together with other drugs because it can decrease their effectiveness and increase