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Is there a legitimate medical use for camphor?

The effectiveness of camphor as a decongestant is questionable. But when it comes to partying, its effects seem to be all the rage.

It wasn't so long ago that mothers would treat their children's colds by hanging little bags of camphor around their necks. The strong medicinal smell probably had some effect in opening up congested nasal passages, but the real value of the treatment undoubtedly was in stopping the spread of the cold by keeping friends at a distance. Camphor can be isolated from the camphor tree which grows in the Orient by a process known as steam distillation. Today, however, most camphor sold is made synthetically from pinene, extracted from pine trees, and its effectiveness as a decongestant is questionable. But problems associated with its use, such as skin irritation, headaches, dizziness, confusion and even hallucinations, have been well documented and linked with inappropriate use of the substance.

But just what does "inappropriate use" mean? How about rubbing your dance partner with a camphorated cream before attacking the dance floor? This certainly isn't listed as a potential use on the label of camphorated cold remedies! But believe it or not, this is just what teenagers in northern England started to do a few years ago. Why? According to some sources, it helps prolong the effect of the drug known as Ecstasy., the dangerous substance which is all the rage at "raves". The popularity of the drug at these parties started to spread and soon, police started to crack down and search the kids as they were entering the raves. So why not just take the drug before going out to party? Because its effect is relatively short-lived. Until some clever closet chemist figured out that if Ecstasy were taken before the night of partying, its effect could actually be prolonged by smearing oneself with camphor.

As this strange story began to spread, the Ecstasy connection was soon lost and hallucinogenic effects were being claimed simply because of the camphor rub! It is unlikely that it actually has any real effect aside from a psychological one since the amount of camphor absorbed through the skin is relatively small. But a high dose, if ingested, could certainly act as a stimulant. There have been cases of children suffering seizures from drinking camphorated oils sold as body rubs.

Camphor is also available as Tiger Balm, a traditional Asian remedy, that has also been known to surface at raves with the same purported effect as Vicks VapoRub. It also, believe it or not, can be used to cure headaches. A study at Monash University in Australia compared the effectiveness of Tiger Balm to acetaminophen, the active ingredient in products like Tylenol. The 60 patients in the study, having received either the Tiger Balm or the placebo, rubbed a small amount of the ointments on their temples three times at half-hour intervals. They also recorded the severity of their headaches on a scale of 1-7 over a three-hour period. To the surprise of the researchers, the Tiger balm was as effective in treating tension headaches as was the acetaminophen. Both were significantly better than placebo.

There seems to be no simple explanation why this treatment should work, although the product may cause relaxation of the muscles in the forehead. And aside from a tingling sensation, there were no side effects.

But what if you don’t suffer from tension headaches and partying at raves aren't your thing? Well then, you can always use camphor as a moth repellent, since it works just as well for that too.


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