This section is from the book "A Treatise On Therapeutics, And Pharmacology Or Materia Medica Vol1", by George B. Wood. Also available from Amazon: Part 1 and Part 2.
Ether is a universal and highly diffusible stimulant, closely resembling alcohol in its action, but much more speedy and less durable. When I say that it is universal, I do not mean that it absolutely stimulates every function at the same time; but only that there is no function which it is not capable of stimulating. Like alcohol, it more or less excites the secretions, and, as shown by Bernard, stimulates the sugar-producing function of the liver. (Arch. Gen., Juin, 1856, p. 736.) Its operation is wry evanescent.
Applied externally, and confined so that it cannot evaporate, it speedily produces burning pain with redness, and, if the application be continued, sometimes vesication. When taken internally, it occasions much irritation in the mouth and fauces, with almost suffocating sensations, arising in part from its vaporization; so that many persons find great difficulty in swallowing it. It leaves a burning sensation in the oesophagus, and produces the same feeling in the stomach. By its rapid evaporation it fills the stomach with its vapour, which is often thrown up by the forcible contractions excited. Its influence is very quickly diffused over the body, causing an increased frequency of pulse, and excitement of the nervous system, especially of the brain, attended with a sense of fulness of the head and feelings of exhilaration. These are followed by drowsiness, and after a short time not unfrequently with perspiration, after which the effects pass off with more or less depression. Its operation in very large doses upon man is not well understood, because, in consequence of the difficulty of swallowing it, the instances are very few in which there has been an opportunity of observing its action when thus administered. It is said, however, when taken excessively, to produce intoxication, nausea, giddiness, and stupefaction. That, if swallowed in very large quantities, it is capable of producing fatal narcotic effects, unless rejected from the stomach, is fairly inferrible from experiments which have been made upon the lower animals, and by its well-known action when inhaled. Orfila states that a dog, in the stomach of which half an ounce of it was introduced, and the oesophagus then tied, was rendered comatose, and died in three hours, presenting marks of inflammation of the stomach after death; and from four to six drachms of it proved sufficient, in the experiments of Brodie, to plunge a horse into deep lethargy. (Merat et de Lens, iii. 166).
Inhalation. Though long known to be capable of acting powerfully by inhalation, it is only of late that its effects, when given in this way, have been carefully studied. About fifty years ago, I remember well that it was a fashion among the boys in Philadelphia to inhale ether for its intoxicating effect, which resembled that produced by nitrous oxide. A teaspoonful or more was introduced into a large bladder, with a mouth-piece attached, through which the vapour was inhaled. One case of death with coma occurred, and several other cases of an alarming character, and the practice soon ceased. The first effect is ordinarily irritation of throat with coughing, which soon subsides, and is followed by marks of general stimulation; the respiration being quickened and more audible, the pulse usually increased in frequency, and the face more or less flushed. An agreeable exhilaration, amounting to intoxication, is now generally felt, which is sometimes quiet; but in other cases is attended with various muscular movements, occasionally amounting to convulsions. In a period of from two to five minutes, sometimes, however, prolonged to ten or even fifteen, sleepiness is produced, the eyes are closed, the voluntary muscles become relaxed, and the patient falls back apparently quite unconscious. The mind, however, is not wholly inactive; for the individual often afterwards speaks of curious dreams or visions, which seem to him to have been of long duration, and which, though occasionally disagreeable or even fearful, are for the most part very much the reverse; and. altogether, the effects are so pleasing that a repetition of the process is frequently desired. But, with an increased influence of the vapour, a deep comatose sleep is induced, often attended with snoring, in which there is an entire loss of consciousness. When the period of stupefaction commences, the pulse becomes slower, the skin relaxed, and the face palish or of a venous hue, which, as the stupor increases, may deepen into a dark suffusion. If the agent is omitted as soon as the stupor appears, this state subsides la quickly as it was produced; and, though there may sometimes remain a momentary confusion of mind, and slight languor of body for a short time, occasionally perhaps a little headache or nausea, the subject of the process soon returns to his previous condition, as if nothing had happened. In the period of excitement, it occasionally happens that the sexual function becomes the special seat of stimulation; and the delusions of the patient, or his dreams, may take a corresponding direction, and, even after the perfect return of consciousness, may remain impressed on the mind with the vividness of reality. This is a very important medico-legal fact. Should the inhalation be persevered in, there is risk of a suspension of the function of the respiratory centre in the medulla oblongata, and of death from asphyxia. Some instances of this kind are on record; but they are extremely rare. With ordinary care, and in an ordinary state of system, death can scarcely result from this cause under the influence of ether.* Indeed, I believe that the ethereal intoxication is much less dangerous even than the alcoholic. But an undue perseverance in its use, in cases which resist the stupefying influence of the ether, is sometimes followed by serious nervous disorders, and injurious if not dangerous sanguineous determinations, which may last for a considerable time, and should serve as a warning to the practitioner not to urge the measure, in all instances, and at all hazards, to entire stupefaction.