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, 47 (8), 771-81

Nicotinic Plant Poisoning


Nicotinic Plant Poisoning

Leo J Schep et al. Clin Toxicol (Phila).


Introduction: A wide range of plants contain nicotinic and nicotinic-like alkaloids. Of this diverse group, those that have been reported to cause human poisoning appear to have similar mechanisms of toxicity and presenting patients therefore have comparable toxidromes. This review describes the taxonomy and principal alkaloids of plants that contain nicotinic and nicotinic-like alkaloids, with particular focus on those that are toxic to humans. The toxicokinetics and mechanisms of toxicity of these alkaloids are reviewed and the clinical features and management of poisoning due to these plants are described.

Methods: This review was compiled by systematically searching OVID MEDLINE and ISI Web of Science. This identified 9,456 papers, excluding duplicates, all of which were screened. Reviewed plants and their principal alkaloids. Plants containing nicotine and nicotine-like alkaloids that have been reported to be poisonous to humans include Conium maculatum, Nicotiana glauca and Nicotiana tabacum, Laburnum anagyroides, and Caulophyllum thalictroides. They contain the toxic alkaloids nicotine, anabasine, cytisine, n-methylcytisine, coniine, n-methylconiine, and gamma-coniceine.

Mechanisms of toxicity: These alkaloids act agonistically at nicotinic-type acetylcholine (cholinergic) receptors (nAChRs). The nicotinic-type acetylcholine receptor can vary both in its subunit composition and in its distribution within the body (the central and autonomic nervous systems, the neuromuscular junctions, and the adrenal medulla). Agonistic interaction at these variable sites may explain why the alkaloids have diverse effects depending on the administered dose and duration of exposure.

Toxicokinetics: Nicotine and nicotine-like alkaloids are absorbed readily across all routes of exposure and are rapidly and widely distributed, readily traversing the blood-brain barrier and the placenta, and are freely distributed in breast milk. Metabolism occurs predominantly in the liver followed by rapid renal elimination.

Clinical features: Following acute exposure, symptoms typically follow a biphasic pattern. The early phase consists of nicotinic cholinergic stimulation resulting in symptoms such as abdominal pain, hypertension, tachycardia, and tremors. The second inhibitory phase is delayed and often heralded by hypotension, bradycardia, and dyspnea, finally leading to coma and respiratory failure.

Management: Supportive care is the mainstay of management with primary emphasis on cardiovascular and respiratory support to ensure recovery.

Conclusions: Exposure to plants containing nicotine and nicotine-like alkaloids can lead to severe poisoning but, with prompt supportive care, patients should make a full recovery.

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