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Soothes muscle aches, relieves coughs

Who'd ever think that the same odoriferous herb that repels wool-eating moths also soothes muscle aches and pains? It's true. And the herb is camphor, a white crystalline substance that's distilled from the wood and roots of the camphor tree-a large evergreen that grows in Asia, South America, Florida and California — and has a smell akin to turpentine. You may not be as familiar with this particular herb as you think-these days most commercial products said to contain camphor actually contain a synthetic version of it.

Until it was replaced by more effective repellents such as naphthalene, camphor was an insect-banishing blessing. "People would put cakes or pellets of camphor on their closet shelves or between wool blankets or sweaters," explains Varro E. Tyler, Ph.D., professor of pharmacognosy at Purdue University School of Pharmacy in West Lafayette, Indiana, and author of The Honest Herbal. The camphor would vaporize, and its pungent fumes would ward off bugs with a taste for cashmere.

Medically, camphor has a long and varied history, although many of its uses have fallen out of favor because of potential toxicity problems. Camphor in alcohol, for example, which was once popular as a "pick-me-up," can actually cause liver damage.

Putting the herb to work

External uses, however, have stood the test of time. "For years, one of its most popular uses was as a rub-on oil, called camphor liniment, which consisted of cottonseed oil containing enough dissolved camphor to make a strong 20 percent solution," Dr. Tyler explains.

Camphorated oil was banned by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1980 after reports of poisoning through accidental ingestion and, less commonly, through skin absorption. But topical creams such as Ben-Gay and Aurum Gold Analgesic, containing up to 11 percent camphor, are available and are considered safe by the FDA. These creams produce a sensation of warmth that helps to counter pain. They also increase blood flow to the area to which they are applied, making your skin rosy-pink.

Vicks VapoRub and Vicks VapoSteam also contain camphor, and there is some evidence that inhaling fumes from a vaporizing camphor ointment rubbed on the chest can help to ease coughing.

You can buy cakes of pure camphor — usually by special order — at a pharmacy and make your own camphorated oil. But you may want to think twice before experimenting with this potentially harmful substance. "I believe you are much better off simply buying an over-the-counter product that contains camphor in safe amounts than fooling around with it on your own," Dr. Tyler says. "Ingesting amounts as small as a teaspoonful can be fatal."

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