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Definition of Ergot

  • Medical Author:
    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    Dr. Shiel received a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from the University of Notre Dame. There he was involved in research in radiation biology and received the Huisking Scholarship. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Medicine, he completed his Internal Medicine residency and Rheumatology fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology.

Ergot: A fungus (Claviceps purpurea) that contaminates rye and wheat and that produces substances (alkaloids) called ergotamines. Ergotamines constrict blood vessels and cause the muscle of the uterus to contract. They have been much used for the treatment of migraines. They have also been used and misused to induce abortion. In excess, ergotamines can cause symptoms such as hallucinations, severe gastrointestinal upset, a type of dry gangrene, and a painful burning sensation in the limbs and extremities. Chronic ergot poisoning (ergotism) was rife during the Middle Ages due to the consumption of contaminated rye. Because of the burning pain, it was known as ignis sacer (holy fire) and ignis infernalis (hell's fire), and was one of the causes of St. Anthony's fire. A form of ergot was also the original basis for the illicit drug lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD).

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Reviewed on 12/27/2018

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