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Camphor products: A cause for concern

Keep products containing camphor away from children

The holidays may be over, but cold and flu season is far from finished. Between now and the end of winter, parents and caregivers across the state will scour their local pharmacies for relief from cold or flu symptoms for themselves and their children.

However, some of these medications can do more harm than good when used improperly, and the Illinois Poison Center is warning families to be careful about how they store the products they bring into their homes.

In 2017, the IPC managed three serious cases involving children who accidentally ingested over-the-counter cold symptom relief products containing camphor. All of them suffered from nausea, vomiting, drowsiness and seizure-like symptoms, including tremors, shakiness and eyes rolling in the back of the head. All three required hospitalization, and fortunately, each child recovered.

Camphor is found in low concentrations in topical ointments, rubs and vaporizer solutions – e.g. Vicks VapoRub, Vicks VapoSteam and similar name-brand and generic products – used to treat cold or flu symptoms, by either massaging them into the skin or adding them to humidifiers.

When used as directed, these products are safe and can relieve coughs and congestion and soothe nasal passages. However, when swallowed, they can be toxic.

The IPC reported 372 cases of camphor poisoning in 2017, most of them from accidental ingestion. The majority of these exposures involved curious toddlers swallowing camphor-containing products. In other instances, children and adults mistakenly ingested substances with camphor, believing they were traditional liquid cough and cold medication.

Camphor, a stimulant to the central nervous system, can cause nausea and vomiting, confusion, agitation, hallucinations, tremors, and seizures. Symptoms usually appear within 90 minutes of exposure.

Many camphor-containing products – which include some arthritis topical creams, gels and patches, cold sore blister products and mothball formulations, in addition to cold relief medication – are not sold in child-resistant containers, so they must be stored out of reach of children.

For suspected camphor ingestion

• Never induce vomiting; and

• Do not give milk or oily foods.

If a camphor-containing product gets in the eyes, rinse eyes thoroughly with warm water.

In all cases of suspected exposure to camphor or other harmful products, immediately call the IPC helpline at 800-222-1222. IPC experts are available to provide information and treatment advice 24 hours per day, 365 days per year, including holidays.

For information, visit

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