Wednesday, 1 Feb 2023

Woman gets 'toxic squash syndrome' after drinking calabash juice

To the bitter end! Woman, 64, nearly dies of ‘toxic SQUASH syndrome’ after being poisoned by trendy calabash juice

  • An unnamed 64 year old woman nearly died of toxic squash syndrome
  • The disease occurs when a person consumes toxic levels of cucurbitacin
  • Cucurbitacin is a naturally occurring toxin in gourds like pumpkins and squash

An elderly woman suffered a severe drop in blood pressure and body temperature after being poisoned by a trendy fruit juice.

The unnamed patient, 64, suffered sudden weakness, nausea and vomiting just minutes after drinking calabash juice. The trendy drink has risen in popularity in recent years for its purported ability to reduce stress.

The woman was admitted to a local ER diagnosed with ‘toxic squash syndrome’ – a rare but potentially deadly disease that occurs when a person consumes a dangerous amount of cucurbitacin, a naturally occurring toxin in calabash.

Her blood pressure rapidly dropped to a dangerously low level and she could have died if she did not quickly seek out medical attention.

The report is revealed as physicians also warn against other popular wellness trends, like taping a person’s mouth shut while sleeping to enhance breathing.

An unnamed woman suffered ‘toxic squash poisoning’ after she drank calabash juice. She noted that the drink was more bitter than usual. Her symptoms came about fast and dropped her blood pressure to dangerously low levels. She would survive after five days in the hospital (file photo)

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The story was reported as a case report in the Canadian Journal of Emergency Medicine.

While the woman regularly enjoyed the beverage – she noted to doctors that it was more bitter this time. 

This is a sign that there were higher levels of the toxic chemicals – which are found in gourds like pumpkins, cucumbers and calabash.

The toxin interrupts the ability for the body’s cells to send signals to one another – disrupting normal bodily functions and causing potentially deadly complications.

What is toxic squash syndrome?

Toxic squash syndrome is a rare but potentially deadly disease.

It occurs when a person consumes dangerous levels of the toxin cucurbitacin, which is naturally found in gourds like pumpkins, cucumbers and watermelons.

Symptoms onset quickly, often within minutes of consumption. 

The toxin is extremely bitter, an indicator that a food or drink could be contaminated.

Symptoms include sudden weakness, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal pain.

A person can also suffer severe heart and breathing problems. 

If left untreated, it can be deadly, but doctors will often be able to help a patient resolve their symptoms in a matter of days. 

While cucurbitacin is toxic, its antitumor properties have given some scientists hope it can be used in future cancer medication.

It also weakens cell defenses, making them more vulnerable to infection and other illnesses. 

Centuries of plant domestication and food science has allowed humans to grow gourds with inconsequential levels of the toxin.

Improper farming practices by amateur farmers can lead to the plants growing with concentrations of cucurbitacin that are dangerous to humans. 

However, improper farming techniques could lead to an overabundance of them in some plants.

It was a homemade drink that the woman had regularly purchased at a local store. 

She was also already suffering from high blood pressure and an overactive thyroid – a gland in the neck that distributes hormones around the body. 

The woman suffered symptoms immediately after consuming the drink, including diarrhea and abdominal pain.

Her blood pressure dropped to unhealthy levels, from 142/90 to 46/27 in a matter of minutes when doctors examined her.

A level below 90/60 is considered dangerous, putting a person at risk of a stroke or heart attack.

She was also taking 18 breaths per minute, slightly more than the safe threshold of 16 per minute for a resting person, which can be an indication of lung or heart failure. 

Her body temperature also fell from around 100 to 96F, lower than what is safe for adults but not low enough to be considered hypothermia. The woman’s extremities were also cold and tender to touch. 

Over the next five days, she continued to have her blood pressure drop to unhealthy levels before rebounding later.

She was treated with electrolytes, drugs for high blood pressure and injections that would help diffuse acid in her stomach. The woman’s condition resolved after five days.

Cucurbitacin is a bitter toxic which’s purpose is to protect the plant from animals and bugs that may try to eat it. 

Its ability to disrupt normal cell functions could prove valuable in the medical field.

It has showed promise in medicine, with the toxin having antitumor and anti-inflammatory properties when used in small, controlled, doses.

It is being researched for use in cancer drugs. One 2020 trial found that it could inhibit the proliferation of colon cancer cells by disrupting their ability to replicate.

While toxic squash syndrome can be deadly, patients who quickly seek out medical treatment will almost always survive.

Gourd fruits purchased from stores are generally considered safe, but experts advise caution for at-home gardeners.  

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