Toxicology of cholinomimetics, especially nicotine and cholinesterase inhibitors, is important for clinical implications. In this article, clinical features of adverse effects, resulting from acute and chronic exposures to cholinomimetics, are described. Management of poisoning, including the role of atropine and cholinesterase reactivators, is also discussed.
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Nicotine 3D

Overview of Toxicity of Cholinomimetic Activators

Cholinomimetics, especially some organophosphates, are used as insecticides in agriculture, and accidental poisoning with them is not uncommon. They are also used for purposes of homicide, suicide, warfare or chemical terrorism. Hence, it is important to understand their toxicology, to learn to suspect, diagnose and manage the poisoning with these agents.

Toxicity of Direct-acting Cholinomimetic Agents

Direct-acting muscarinic stimulants

  • Poisoning with these agents presents with signs of muscarinic excess such as nausea, vomiting, excessive salivation, excessive perspiration, diarrhea, urinary urgency, bronchospasm, flushing, etc. (Recollect pharmacological actions of these agents.)
  • Miosis (or even pin-point pupils) is a very important clinical sign to suspect poisoning with cholinomimetics.
  • Severe poisoning can lead to convulsions, coma and even death.
  • Similar signs can also be seen in poisoning due to certain mushrooms (e.g., genus Inocybe) containing muscarinic alkaloids. Signs of mushroom poisoning usually appear within 15-30 minutes of their consumption.
  • Atropine is the antidote of choice.
  • Topical pilocarpine can cause adverse effects like blurred vision, night blindness and brow ache.


  • Acute nicotine toxicity can occur due to ingestion of nicotine insecticides or tobacco. Most of the nicotine in a cigarette is destroyed by burning or escapes via smoke, reducing chances of nicotine poisoning among cigarette smokers.
  • Symptoms of acute toxicity include nausea, vomiting, hypertension, cardiac arrhythmias, central nervous system stimulation (convulsions, coma, death due to respiratory arrest), skeletal muscle end-plate depolarization blockade (skeletal and respiratory muscle paralysis) and symptoms of muscarinic excess (due to parasympathetic ganglion stimulation). In acute poisoning, fatal dose of nicotine is ~40 mg or 1 drop of pure liquid.
  • Treatment of acute nicotine toxicity is mainly symptomatic, i.e., atropine for symptoms of muscarinic excess, diazepam for central nervous system stimulation, mechanical ventilation for neuromuscular paralysis, etc.
  • Chronic nicotine toxicity in smokers is known to be associated with increased risk of vascular disease, coronary artery disease, sudden coronary death, peptic ulcer, certain pulmonary diseases, etc.
  • Smoking cessation is the most important step, which requires counseling and motivation.
  • For motivated patients, nicotine in forms with low abuse potential (gum, transdermal patch, nasal spray, inhaler, etc.) is used as replacement therapy. Slowly absorbed nicotine from these forms occupies the α4β2 receptors in central nervous system and reduces craving.
  • Varenicline, a partial agonist at the α4β2 receptors, is also effective for smoking cessation.


Important side effects of varenicline are nausea, insomnia, exacerbation of anxiety and depression and, possibly, suicidal ideation.

Toxicity of Cholinesterase Inhibitors

Cholinesterase inhibitors (organophosphates and carbamates) are widely available as pesticides and veterinary vermifuges, which can cause poisoning by acute or chronic exposure.

Acute intoxication presents with signs of muscarinic excess (nausea, vomiting, excessive salivation, excessive perspiration, diarrhea, urinary urgency, bronchospasm, excessive tracheobronchial secretions and miosis), central nervous system signs (cognitive disturbances, convulsions, coma) and peripheral nicotinic effects (depolarizing neuromuscular blockade).


Image: “A 25 year old Caucasian male with miosis due to opiate (i.e., codeine) use.” by Anonymous. License: CC0 1.0

Central nervous system side effects are more common with physostigmine than with neostigmine or pyridostigmine as physostigmine enters the CNS while the others cannot.

Compared to direct-acting cholinomimetics, poisoning with cholinesterase inhibitors has the following differences: vasodilation is uncommon and bradycardia is more common than tachycardia.

Mnemonic for signs and symptoms of acute organophosphate poisoning:

DUMBBELSS: Diarrhea, Urination, Miosis, Bronchospasm, Bradycardia, Excitation of skeletal muscles and CNS, Lacrimation, Salivation, Sweating

  • Tacrine, an anticholinesterase used in treatment of Alzheimer’s disease, is replaced by other drugs due to its hepatotoxicity.
  • Important adverse effect of donepezil, rivastigmine and galantamine, anticholinesterase drugs used in treatment of Alzheimer’s disease, is gastrointestinal distress.
  • As cholinesterase inhibitors are used as chemical weapons in wars, soldiers and civilians are provided with autoinjection syringes containing carbamate, pyridostigmine and atropine. Pyridostigmine prevents prolonged inhibition of cholinesterase by impeding binding of the chemical agent; however, it does not enter the central nervous system.
  • Chronic exposure to triorthocresyl phosphate, used as an additive in lubricating oils, can cause delayed demyelinating neuropathy 1-2 weeks after exposure by inhibiting neuropathy target esterase (NTE). Clinical presentation includes weakness of limbs and unsteadiness of gait.

    Cataract in human eye

    Image: “Cataract in human eye” by Rakesh Ahuja, MD – Own work, License: CC BY-SA 3.0

  • Nerve toxicity can also develop 1-4 days after exposure to organophosphate insecticides, which is known as intermediate syndrome. It is also characterized by muscular weakness; the mechanism of toxicity is thought to be related to cholinesterase inhibition, but there is no proof.
  • Important adverse effects associated with echothiophate (previously used topically in treatment of glaucoma) are brow ache, uveitis, blurred vision and cataract formation.

Treatment of Cholinomimetic Toxicity

Management of acute anticholinesterase poisoning

  • Maintenance of vital signs, with special importance to respiration.
  • Prevention of further absorption of the agent (removal of clothing and washing of skin when exposure is through skin, etc.).
  • Management of other symptoms (control of seizures by benzodiazepines, etc.).
  • Specific antidotes: atropine & cholinesterase reactivators.


  • Very effective for treatment of muscarinic symptoms;
  • Higher doses are necessary to counteract central actions;
  • Peripheral muscular paralysis cannot be reversed by atropine as it is a nicotinic effect.

Cholinesterase reactivators

Cholinesterase reactivators are composed of substituted oximes that regenerate active cholinesterase from the organophosphorus-cholinesterase complex. They attach to the anionic site of cholinesterase, which is unoccupied by organophosphates. The anionic site is not free in case of carbamates—cholinesterase reactivators are ineffective and contraindicated in carbamate poisoning as they also have a weak anti-cholinesterase activity.

Cholinesterase reactivators are most effective when administered as early as possible, before the phosphorylated cholinesterase has undergone aging.

Pralidoxime can reverse both muscarinic and nicotinic peripheral effects but cannot reverse CNS effects as it cannot penetrate the CNS.

Other important cholinesterase reactivators are obidoxime (more potent than pralidoxime) and diacetyl-monoxime (DAM) (a lipophilic cholinesterase reactivator).

Myasthenic Crisis versus Cholinergic Crisis

Myasthenic Crisis Cholinergic Crisis
Pathophysiologic cause is insufficient cholinesterase inhibitors in presence of reduced number of acetylcholine receptors Pathophysiologic cause is excess of acetylcholine due to excessive cholinesterase inhibitors
External ophthalmoplegia present External ophthalmoplegia absent
Pupils normal and reactive to light Pupils reactive to light but miosis present
Ptosis usually present Ptosis usually absent
Fasciculations absent in skeletal muscles Fasciculations present in skeletal muscles
Increased blood pressure Decreased blood pressure
Bowel and bladder incontinence Abdominal cramps, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea
Edrophonium gives temporary relief Edrophonium has no effect but may worsen symptoms
Atropine does not improve symptoms Atropine improves symptoms

Review Questions on Cholinomimetic Agent Toxicity

The correct answers can be found below the references.

1. Which of the following clinical features of acute cholinomimetic poisoning cannot be
effectively treated by administration of parenteral atropine?

A.    Muscular paralysis

B.     Hyperlacrimation

C.     Miosis

D.    Hypersalivation

E.     Diarrhea

2. Due to which of the following adverse effects has tacrine been replaced by other
cholinesterase inhibitors for management of Alzheimer’s disease?

A.    Nephrotoxicity

B.     Retinal damage

C.     Neurotoxicity

D.    Hepatotoxicity

E.     Cardiotoxicity

3. In acute poisoning, due to which of the following compounds will pralidoxime not be

A.     Malathion

B.     Parathion

C.     Carbaryl

D.     Sarin

E.     Metrifonate

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