As used in this country, oil of turpentine is obtained exclusively from our common or white turpentine, by distillation.


It is a limpid, colourless liquid, of a strong, peculiar odour, and a warm, pungent, bitterish, and very characteristic taste. This odour and taste have been assumed as a standard of comparison; and, when similar properties are observed in other bodies, they are said to be terebinthinate. The oil is lighter than water, volatilizable, highly imflammable, very slightly soluble in water, scarcely soluble, when quite pure, in cold officinal alcohol, and readily dissolved by ether. On exposure to the air, it absorbs oxygen, and becomes yellowish and thicker, in consequence of the formation of resinous matter, which is held in solution in the oil. In time, it is in this way rendered very impure. But, as the resin formed is readily soluble in alcohol, the oil may be purified by agitation with that fluid, which dissolves the impurity, and leaves the oil fit for use. When quite pure, it is composed of hydrogen and carbon exclusively; but, as found in the shops, it almost always contains oxygen absorbed from the air.

Effects on the System

The first effect of oil of turpentine, when given to a healthy person in moderate doses, is usually a feeling of warmth in the stomach, which is followed by a glow over the system, and, after a short time, by increased frequency of the pulse. There is also generally an increased secretion of urine, which has a violet odour; and, after the oil has been taken for some time, a terebinthinate smell is perceptible in the breath, and the exhalations from the skin. The oil is said, moreover, to be diaphoretic. This effect I have not noticed as a common event; though, in certain conditions of low fever in which it is given, I have often observed a soft and natural state of the skin following a dry and hot condition; but this change I have ascribed rather to the effect of the medicine in relieving the disease, and removing a source of irritation to the surface, than to its direct action on the perspiratory function. The kidneys and urinary passages are the parts in which the operation of the oil, after entering the circulation, is most obvious. Though, as stated above, the urinary secretion is usually increased under the stimulation of the medicine, yet, after some days, irritation is often produced, amounting even to strangury, and attended occasionally with bloody urine; and the secretion is now diminished, instead of being augmented. With these phenomena, there is an entire absence of any evidence of special action on the brain or nervous system generally.

From larger quantities, if within the limits of two fluidrachms, no other observable effects ordinarily result than perhaps some increase of the phenomena mentioned, and a disposition to disturb the bowels, which is sometimes also evinced even by the common medicinal doses.

If the quantity be increased beyond half a fluidounce, up to one, two, or three fluidounces, a greater degree of general excitement is produced. in which the brain now participates; feelings of fulness of the head, and slight vertigo, being experienced, and sometimes, it is said, drowsiness. or a confusion of mind bordering upon intoxication. A condition resembling trance is said to have been experienced in one instance. In the doses mentioned, the oil not unfrequently occasions nausea, and sometimes vomiting; and in a short time, usually within an hour or two, purges actively; after which the Cerebral symptoms subside. These symptoms may possibly be the result of a sympathetic impression upon the brain, extended from the irritated stomach, as might be inferred from their quick occurrence, and their rapid disappearance upon the discharge of the oil by the bowels. Another evidence, to the same effect, is that large doses of the oil are less apt to produce irritation of the urinary passages than the smaller doses frequently repeated; showing that an equal amount of absorption has not taken place. The severer head symptoms are most apt to occur when the medicine does not, as sometimes happens, operate on the bowels. In this case, too, the exhalations from the skin and lungs are highly terebinthinate, and the urine has the violet odour strongly.

Like most other stimulants, the oil sometimes appears to act as an emmenagogue.

It can scarcely be considered poisonous; as not less than four fluid-ounces are asserted to have been taken without serious consequences. On the lower animals, however, it would seem to act deleteriously; for two drachms, given to a dog, are said to have proved fatal in three minutes, with symptoms of tetanus, and great prostration. (Pereira, Mat. Mat., 3d ed., p. 1193.) A case, moreover, has been recently recorded, in which death was supposed to have been occasioned in a woman by six fluidounce of the oil; but the circumstances of the case are so obscure, as to leave the real cause of the fatal result uncertain. (See Am. Journ. of Med. Sci., N. S., xxxvi. 562.) As to the alleged poisonous effects resembling those of lead, said to have been produced by exposure to the exhalations from a newly-painted room (Gaz. Med. de Paris, 1855, No. 52), and which were ascribed to the oil of turpentine used in the paint, there cannot be the least doubt that they were really owing to the lead which must have risen with the vapours; for long exposure to the pure vapours of the oil, which is not uncommon in this country, never occasions such effects; while, as before stated in this work, it is well known that painters who use this oil in mixing their paints are peculiarly liable to lead-poison.

The oil is undoubtedly absorbed. Tiedemann and Gmelin detected it in the chyle of animals to whom it had been given. The odour of the urine, and that exhaled from the lungs and skin, are of themselves sufficient proof. It may be absorbed into the system when inhaled in the form of vapour. I have had under my care a young man, attacked with strangury and bloody urine, from being confined on board of a vessel loaded with turpentine, during a voyage from North Carolina to New York; and he informed me that another of the crew was affected in the same manner.

When applied to the skin, the oil acts usually as a powerful rubefacient.