- Squaw mint
- Mosquito plant
- Squaw balm
For Patients & Caregivers
How It Works
Pennyroyal is an extremely toxic herb that has caused multi-organ failure and death in several people.
Pennyroyal is a flowering plant that was used in folk medicine to induce abortion, alleviate menstrual symptoms, and to treat inflammatory conditions and minor ailments. The oil itself is highly toxic, and is not recommended for internal use. A substance called pugelone in pennyroyal is thought to be responsible for its toxic effects and tissue damage. Studies in both animals and humans show that pulegone is also directly toxic to the nervous system. There have been a number of case reports and also several deaths attributed to the use of this botanical.
Do Not Take If
In general, pennyroyal oil is highly toxic and is not recommended for internal use.
- You are pregnant or breast feeding: Pennyroyal can cause miscarriage and other toxic effects.
- You are taking iron supplements: Pennyroyal may reduce bioavailability by 50% or more.
- You are taking cytochrome P450 substrate drugs: A case report of acute liver failure was possibly caused by drug interactions with pennyroyal tea.
- Nausea, cramps, and stomach upset
- Liver and kidney toxicities
Case Reports of Toxicity and Death
- At least 24 cases of pennyroyal toxicity, including liver and kidney failure, low blood sugar, blood clotting problems, acidic blood pH, GI hemorrhage, lung congestion, mental status changes, brain swelling, seizures, and death.
- A 76-year-old woman experienced acute liver failure, possibly caused by drug interactions with pennyroyal tea.
- There are several reports of young women who took pennyroyal oil for its abortion-inducing effects and died of multi-organ failure.
- One infant given pennyroyal tea for respiratory infections died from organ failure.
For Healthcare Professionals
An essential oil or tea derived from the leaves and flowering tops of the plant, pennyroyal was used in folk medicine to induce abortion, alleviate menstrual symptoms, and to treat inflammatory conditions, chronic bronchitis, and minor ailments. The oil itself is highly toxic, and is not recommended for internal use.
Pennyroyal oil contains several monoterpenes, principally pulegone, to which toxic effects on the liver and lungs are attributed. Oxidative metabolites of pugelone such as menthofuran are oxidized further by cytochrome P450 to reactive intermediates that form adducts with cellular proteins and cause organ damage (4).
Ingestion of pennyroyal oil in adults or tea in children causes severe toxicity (4) (5), including hepatic failure, acute renal failure, coagulopathies, metabolic acidosis, GI hemorrhage, pulmonary congestion with consolidation, cerebral edema, seizures, disseminated intravascular coagulation, and death.
Mechanism of Action
Pennyroyal’s abortifacient properties are thought to be due to irritation of the uterus, causing contractions, but lethal doses are necessary for this to occur and the effect is inconsistent. Pennyroyal’s mint properties, attributable to the menthol component, theoretically may act in dilating respiratory passages in bronchitis or asthma when consumed as a tea (5). European and American pennyroyal oil consist of 80-90% and 16-30% (R)-(+)-pulegone, respectively, which is oxidized by cytochrome P450 to menthofuran (about 50%) and other toxic metabolites (4). The menthofuran is further oxidized to an epoxide which is likely the ultimate toxic biological reactive intermediate (15) that causes liver damage. Animal and human studies also show that pulegone is neurotoxic. Menthofuran is known to decrease glucose-6-phosphatase activity in rat models, causing hypoglycemia (1).
Dizziness, weakness, syncope, hallucinations, abdominal cramps, nausea, GI upset, pupillary changes, hepatotoxicity, renal injury.
Toxicity: At least 24 cases of pennyroyal toxicity are in the literature, reporting fulminant hepatic failure, acute renal failure, hypoglycemia, coagulopathy, metabolic acidosis, GI hemorrhage, pulmonary congestion with consolidation, mental status changes, cerebral edema, seizures, disseminated intravascular coagulation, and death. Pennyroyal oil ingestion is treated with gastric lavage, activated charcoal, and N-acetylcysteine in patients evaluated soon after ingestion.
Acute liver failure: In 76-year-old woman possibly caused by drug interactions with pennyroyal tea, which makes use of 1A2, 2E1, and 2C19 as substrates (16).
Multiorgan failure leading to coma and death with pennyroyal oil: A 24-year-old woman ingested pennyroyal extract for over 2 weeks and, after acute ingestion, developed abdominal cramps, chills, vomiting, syncope, cardiopulmonary arrest and multiorgan failure leading to coma and death. Exploratory laparotomy showed a hemorrhagic ectopic pregnancy (13). An 18-year old ingested 30 ml of pennyroyal oil and developed abdominal pain, vomiting, coagulopathy, and died one week later from cardiopulmonary arrest and multiple organ failure (5).
Infant death with use of pennyroyal tea: After ingesting 120 ml of homegrown pennyroyal mint tea to treat a suspected infection, an 8-week old boy experienced multiple organ failure including confluent hepatocellular necrosis, kidney hemorrhage and necrosis, bilateral lung consolidation with diffuse alveolar damage and hemorrhage, and diffuse cerebral edema with acute ischemic necrosis and isolated vacuolation of the midbrain. The infant died 4 days after admission.
Infant hepatic injury, seizures, and bleeding: A 6-month old boy developed acute hepatic injury, seizures, and sinus hemorrhage after regular consumption of pennyroyal tea, and recovered after 2 months of hospitalization (4).
Cytochrome P450 substrate drugs: A case report of acute liver failure was possibly caused by drug interactions with pennyroyal tea, which makes use of 1A2, 2E1, and 2C19 as substrates (16). CYP2E1 in particular has been determined to be the major metabolizing enzyme for pulegone, the key toxic constituent of pennyroyal (17).
Iron supplements: Monomeric flavonoids in pennyroyal may complex with iron in the intestinal lumen and reduce bioavailability by 50% or more (14).