Chloral hydrate is an organic compound with the formula C2H3Cl3O2. It is a colorless solid. It has limited use as a sedative and hypnotic pharmaceutical drug. It is also a useful laboratory chemical reagent and precursor. It is derived from chloral (trichloroacetaldehyde) by the addition of one equivalent of water.
It was discovered through the chlorination (halogenation) of ethanol in 1832 by Justus von Liebig in Gießen. Its sedative properties were first published in 1869 and subsequently, because of its easy synthesis, its use was widespread. It was widely used recreationally and misprescribed in the late 19th century. Chloral hydrate is soluble in both water and ethanol, readily forming concentrated solutions. A solution of chloral hydrate in ethanol called "knockout drops" was used to prepare a Mickey Finn. More reputable uses of chloral hydrate include its use as a clearing agent for chitin and fibers and as a key ingredient in Hoyer's mounting medium, which is used to prepare permanent or semi-permanent microscope slides of small organisms, histological sections, and chromosome squashes. Because of its status as a regulated substance, chloral hydrate can be difficult to obtain. This has led to chloral hydrate being replaced by alternative reagents in microscopy procedures.
It is, together with chloroform, a minor side-product of the chlorination of water when organic residues such as humic acids are present. It has been detected in drinking water at concentrations of up to 100 micrograms per litre (µg/L) but concentrations are normally found to be below 10 µg/L. Levels are generally found to be higher in surface water than in ground water.
Chloral hydrate is used for the short-term treatment of insomnia and as a sedative before minor medical or dental treatment. It was largely displaced in the mid-20th century by barbiturates and subsequently by benzodiazepines. It was also formerly used in veterinary medicine as a general anesthetic. It is also still used as a sedative prior to EEG procedures, as it is one of the few available sedatives that does not suppress epileptiform discharges.
In therapeutic doses for insomnia, chloral hydrate is effective within 20 to 60 minutes. In humans it is metabolized within 7 hours into trichloroethanol and trichloroethanol glucuronide by erythrocytes and plasma esterases and into trichloroacetic acid in 4 to 5 days. It has a very narrow therapeutic window making this drug difficult to use. Higher doses can depress respiration and blood pressure.
Chloral hydrate was routinely administered to patients on the gram scale. Prolonged exposure to the vapors is unhealthy however, with a LC50 for 4-h exposure of 440 mg/m3. Long-term use of chloral hydrate is associated with a rapid development of tolerance to its effects and possible addiction as well as adverse effects including rashes, gastric discomfort and severe kidney, heart, and liver failure.
Acute overdosage is often characterized by nausea, vomiting, confusion, convulsions, slow and irregular breathing, cardiac arrhythmia, and coma. The plasma, serum or blood concentrations of chloral hydrate and/or trichloroethanol, its major active metabolite, may be measured to confirm a diagnosis of poisoning in hospitalized patients or to aid in the medicolegal investigation of fatalities. Accidental overdosage of young children undergoing simple dental or surgical procedures has occurred. Hemodialysis has been used successfully to accelerate clearance of the drug in poisoning victims.
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