I is for Ipecac

In commenting on Monika’s blog on the use of ipecac in Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy, I had quite a bit more to say than I realized.

Mealtime Mayhem

Family around dinner table When I was a small child, we granddaughters (and only granddaughters) were having a sleep-over at my paternal grandparents’ home. They still had their three youngest children at home, as well as a room full of young girls.

Supper was macaroni and cheese, the old standard favorite of children in many US homes. It took little time for us to feel ill, and when we were finally home, my mother—a registered nurse—recognized that we had been subjected to ipecac.

In retrospect, the sweetish taste was hidden under an incredibly amount of cheese.  I knew eating wasn’t making me feel well, and then I was really ill. In the interest of clarity, I recently (yesterday) asked my mother about this incident, and she said she thought ipecac not only because of our symptoms, but also because my sister had put ketchup on the mac-and-cheese to “make it taste better”. That was highly unusual, as ketchup on mac-and-cheese was something she’d never done at home. Or was ever known to do again.

Rather more interestingly, my older sister also was not as ill as I was. I developed a “racing heart” sensation, as well as a sense of fever. A recent e-mail exchange with paternal cousins confirms that the youngest three of us were more ill than our older (larger) siblings.

Sneaky Syrup

One reason I think ipecac was favored so often in the past is that the taste is easily hidden. If you put it into something pungent or spicy, I doubt anyone would notice at all, based on my memory.

While it has a sweetish taste in my experience, it does not taste like sugar. The closest analogies I can find are wildflower honey, or a slightly nutty sap. Goanese IpecacEven a taste of dark corn syrup can make me reflexively guzzle water to “wash it away”, so that might be an equivalent, at least in my imperfect taste-memory. I’ve no idea if the substance is naturally sweet or not. I’ve avoided it.

After I recovered from the incident, my mom told me that the syrup was sweet, so you could get someone to take it back when it was medicinal. During her training as a nurse, ipecac syrup was still sometimes used to induce vomiting in poisoning cases.

Sweet Goes Sour

My dad always complained that my mother’s cooking didn’t taste as sweet as his mother’s. He would urge my mother to add sugar to spaghetti sauce, didn’t think she bought the right pancake syrup because it wasn’t “right”,  and complained that her icing or glaze for donuts and cupcakes never “tasted right”. During their early years together, it created tension between them. I can confirm this, since I heard about it, from each parent, as I was growing up.Apple with blemishes

My dad and his siblings have all had gastro-intestinal issues all their lives, and to some extent it could be genetically influenced. On the other hand, all 7 of 7 kids is statistically getting toward the territory of “improbable”.

What does it mean? I don’t know. I can only report what I personally observed. I can also add that bulimia is known to cause GI issues, from the repeated induction of vomiting, and those issues are remarkably similar to those suffered by my father and his siblings.

If you have any personal experience with ipecac, feel free to share in the comments below.

Golden sunrise over hills

Images by skeeze, ajaykuyiloor, kasman, and dannymoore1973.


2 thoughts on “I is for Ipecac

  1. Thank you for this post – this is really interesting. I’m so sorry this happened, but I think it is really helpful for you to portray it from this angle.

    You made me want to answer the question – does long-term, low-level ipecac poisoning lead to permanent GI problems? I didn’t find anything (yet), but I did find a lot of doco that it causes “cardiomyopathy” – kills your heart – and that is how MSbP kids succumb to it: http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/97/6/902?variant=short&sso=1&sso_redirect_count=1&nfstatus=401&nftoken=00000000-0000-0000-0000-000000000000&nfstatusdescription=ERROR%3a+No+local+token

    Any of the 7 have cardiomyopathy, do you think? I know it’s mostly speculation…maybe that’s how the ones that died went – sorry it that sounds crude, but it’s a thought. Thanks again for sharing something so moving.


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