Background: Betel nut chewing has long been a social habit in Taiwan and other Asian and tropical countries. It produces various autonomic and psychoneurologic effects including tachycardia, flushing, warmth, cholinergic activation, alertness, and euphoria. Although the oral carcinogenic effects are well known, data concerning its acute toxicity are few. To better understand the toxicity of betel nut, cases reported to the Taiwan Poison Control Center as probable or possible betel nutrelated toxicity (January 1988-June 1998) were reviewed. In the 17 cases suitable for review (14 males, 3 females, age 21 to 60 years), the most common manifestations were tachycardia/palpitations (7); tachypnea/dyspnea (6); hypotension and sweating (5); vomiting, dizziness, and chest discomfort (4); abdominal colic, nausea, numbness, and coma (3); and acute myocardial infarction and related manifestations (2). The reported quantity of betel nut used was low (1 to 6 nuts), except an extract of 100 betel nuts was used in 1 case and 66 chewed in another. Most cases recovered within 24 hours after the exposure. One patient developed probable acute myocardial infarction and ventricular fibrillation and died despite repeated cardiac defibrillation. Although betel nut chewing is widespread, significant toxicity as reported to a poison center is rare. Because most betel nut-related effects are transient and mild in nature, the incidence of such events is likely to be underreported. Nevertheless, betel nut chewing can produce significant cholinergic, neurological, cardiovascular, and gastrointestinal manifestations. It is possible that it may aggravate cardiac diseases in susceptible patients but this hypothesis must be further investigated. Treatment is symptomatic. With timely support, rapid and complete recovery is anticipated but a small risk of major complications cannot yet be discounted.
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