It's meant to boost your health, but Minnesota doctors caution that the alternative health practice of drinking hydrogen peroxide can send you straight to an emergency room.

Six people in the past year have been treated at Hennepin County Medical Center for injuries after they drank a potent form of the compound, which is typically used as a bleaching agent and disinfectant.

Although these were accidental cases, in which the colorless fluid was mistaken for water, the recent poisonings have prompted Minnesota doctors to warn people about the dangers of intentionally drinking it, a practice that is being embraced by some who believe diluting hydrogen peroxide in water creates a "super water" that can be used to naturally treat various ailments — including sinus infections, arthritis and cancer.

"The way people describe it is that they take three drops of concentrated peroxide and dissolve it in about 8 ounces of water and take it three times a day," explained Dr. Ann Arens, a medical toxicologist at the Minnesota Poison Control System. "There's no benefit of doing it, and it really opens you up to a lot of potential harm."

Minnesota doctors have seen more cases of hydrogen peroxide poisoning in the past two months, she said.

The hydrogen peroxide in these cases is stronger than the 3 to 5 percent concentration usually found in drugstores. The bottle is labeled "food grade quality" and contains 35 percent hydrogen peroxide.

"It burns as soon as you drink it," Arens said.

Consuming the liquid can burn holes in the esophagus and stomach and can create oxygen bubbles that can be released in the bloodstream. When that happens, explained Dr. Stephen Hendriksen, an emergency medicine doctor at HCMC, the bubbles can travel to the brain and cause seizures and strokelike symptoms.

H2O2 therapy

Hydrogen peroxide therapy has been around for decades, promoted by some in alternative medicine circles as a natural remedy.

Step-by-step protocols on websites and YouTube videos advocate starting with a few drops of hydrogen peroxide diluted in a glass of water and slowly building up the body's tolerance over time to consume 25 or more drops of hydrogen peroxide mixed with water.

In Minnesota, the food grade quality peroxide is sold in several natural food stores. Made up of two parts hydrogen and two parts oxygen, hydrogen peroxide is often used as a cleaning agent or as an antiseptic to treat wounds. Some people rinse their mouth with a diluted mixture of hydrogen peroxide and water to treat canker sores and freshen their breath.

Minnesotan Walter "Wally" Grotz was one of the best-known H202 evangelists — writing extensively about his personal success of using it to eliminate arthritis pain. Grotz, who died earlier this year at age 92, was a World War II veteran from Delano, Minn. His writings have been widely dispersed online, and he was even the subject of a podcast episode titled "Miracle Man" by Twin Cities podcaster T.D. Mischke.

Dr. Crystalin Montgomery, a naturopathic doctor at Wellness Minneapolis, said she has patients who ingest diluted hydrogen peroxide for better health, but it's not something she promotes.

"It's not a therapy that I recommend to my patients, mostly because I don't have the experience with that," she said. "It certainly is a therapy that many of my patients who come to see me do themselves."

Many of them tell her they use it to help alkalinize the body, "which is often a goal because they read about it."

Among Montgomery's patients are those who have cancer and are looking for natural treatment options. She said that she tells them to discontinue hydrogen peroxide therapy and instead focus on proven ways to achieve better health, such as eating more fruits and vegetables.

"I haven't seen or learned enough about it to feel comfortable or confident about it. Because the risk for harm is there, then why bother if it is outweighing the potential for benefit?" she said.

Doing what seems natural

The appeal of H2O2 therapy may be explained by nothing more than good, old-fashioned human nature.

"We as humans like the idea of doing something that can help provide immediate relief," Montgomery said. "Everybody, in general, is feeling like they're not totally being served by the conventional medical paradigm, so they're looking for other ways."

Earlier this year, researchers found that ingesting high-concentration peroxide can cause gas embolisms — bubbles that block flow in the blood vessels, leading to permanent disability or death.

The study, led by the University of Colorado School of Medicine and published in February in the Annals of Emergency Medicine, combed through 10 years of poison control records and discovered that nearly 14 percent of cases involving the consumption of high-concentration peroxide resulted in people having embolisms.

What's more, in 6.8 percent of the peroxide poisonings, the person died or was disabled.

The most recent Minnesota case involved a thirsty man who spotted a sports drink container at home and took a swig from it, thinking it contained water, HCMC spokeswoman Christine Hill said. But unbeknown to him, someone else had been storing the "super water" in the container. Despite the deadly potential of his mistake, he made a recovery.

Allie Shah • 612-673-4488