Conservative management of cocaine-packet ingestion: experience in Milan, the main Italian smuggling center of South American cocaine

Panminerva Med. 1996 Jun;38(2):111-6.


Objective: To assess retrospectively the effectiveness and the safety of the conservative medical management of asymptomatic cocaine body-packers.

Design: Case series collected during twelve years (1980-1992).

Setting: Milan Airports Health Center. Department of Surgery and Intensive Care Unit of San Raffaele Hospital-University of Milan.

Participants: 189 suspected cocaine body packers (143 male, 53 female), aged between 18-53 years, were brought to our observation by customs after disembarking at the Milan International Airports of Malpensa and Linate. 61 subjects (32%) turned to be carriers of packets containing cocaine (ovules).

Interventions: Medical conservative treatment, based on close clinical observation and light solid diet, free assumption of liquids and oily laxatives. Plain abdominal X-ray and ultrasound were performed for the diagnosis of cocaine packet ingestion and then repeated up to the complete evacuation of all ovules. Two laparotomies with surgical removal of ovules in symptomatic patients (bowel obstruction and acute cocaine intoxication due to the intraluminal rupture).

Measures: Physical examination with neurological assessment every 8 hours and vital signs (including blood pressure, heart frequency and temperature) every 4 hours to detect complications (acute cocaine intoxication, bowel obstruction or perforation) secondary to cocaine packet ingestion. Structural features of the containers, cocaine amount per ovule, and rate and indications for surgical treatment have been reviewed.

Results: Evacuation period lasted from 3 to 6 days. Ingested containers varied from 52 to 117 with a mean of 88 +/- 13 ovules for each body packer. Total amount of recovered 95% pure cocaine hydrochloride was 41 kilograms. Signs of cocaine toxicity and bowel obstruction requiring emergency laparotomy occurred in two cases (3.3%). Both patients recovered uneventfully.

Conclusions: Conservative management during spontaneous evacuation of the containers is the first choice approach to the body-packet ingestion. Close clinical observation allows an early detection of the patients with complications requiring emergency surgical treatment.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Cocaine / poisoning*
  • Crime*
  • Female
  • Foreign Bodies*
  • Humans
  • Intestinal Obstruction / therapy*
  • Italy
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Retrospective Studies
  • South America


  • Cocaine