Sunday, March 22, 2009

Gran's home cures Part 2

Gran's home cures
Mon, Mar 23, 2009
The Straits Times

[Top (from left): Medicated oil, Vicks VapoRub and Po Chai Pills.]

By Poon Chian Hui

Generations of Singaporeans have depended on them to treat ailments ranging from the occasional sore throat to stomach discomforts and even toothaches.


What are these old-fashioned remedies and how do they work? Here is the second of our two-part series.


Used for Blocked nose, coughs, as well as muscular aches and pains caused by the common cold.

What makes it work?

A blend of oils - eucalyptus, peppermint, nutmeg, cedar leaf and turpentine - works to relieve discomfort and to prevent inflammation, said Ms Lim Wan Peng, a senior pharmacist at Tan Tock Seng Hospital.

For instance, menthol from peppermint oil inhibits pain receptors, hence reducing the degree of pain felt.

Another active ingredient, camphor, helps to alleviate pain.

How safe is the product?

Excessive inhalation is not advised as camphor is toxic in excessive amounts, said Ms Lim. The label also warns that the product should not be applied in the mouth or the nostrils.

Too liberal use of turpentine oil has also been known to cause skin irritation and mild irritation of the respiratory tract, according to Ms Lim. There were also recent news reports that inhaling the fumes of the ointment may cause further irritation to the airway, particularly in children below two years of age. The product label states that the ointment should be used only in adults and children above two years old.

Important to know

Some research in the past few years suggested that vapours from camphor, eucalyptus and menthol do not actually improve airflow in blocked noses, said Ms Lim. Instead, they produce a cooling sensation in the nose, which gives a feeling of improved breathing.


Used for Stomach discomforts like diarrhoea, indigestion, bloatedness, cramps, nausea and stomach flu.

What makes it work?

Po Chai pills contain tangerine peels which promote better digestion and movement in the stomach and spleen, said Ms Lim.

In addition, preliminary research on another key ingredient, a rhizome extract, showed that it helped to slow down the production of gastric acid, hence relieving gastric pains.

How safe is the product?

Safe for short-term use.

Important to know

There is insufficient evidence to prove that the pills are safe for pregnant or breastfeeding women, said Ms Lim.


Used for Giddiness, headaches, rheumatic pains, travel sickness, stomachaches and insect bites.

What makes it work?

It contains camphor, peppermint and eucalyptus oil to alleviate discomfort and prevent inflammation, said Ms Lim.

Another active ingredient, methyl salicylate, helps to prevent skin irritation.

How safe is the product?

Medicated oil is quite safe for topical use, said Ms Lim.

However, she added that camphor is toxic at high levels and some amounts can be absorbed through the skin. Hence, liberal use of products with camphor is not advised.

Important to know

If you are allergic to aspirin, use with caution as methyl salicylate is an aspirin-related compound.


Used for Itching, swelling, scabies, athlete's foot and other sores, insect stings and bites, minor burns and scalds, pimples and acne.

What makes it work?

Apart from camphor and menthol from peppermint oil, the herbal oil also contains an extract of the rhubarb plant, which causes its characteristic yellow colour.

Like camphor, rhubarb extracts help to prevent inflammation.

How safe is the product?

It is best for pregnant and breastfeeding women to avoid this product because there is no research to support that it is safe for them to use it, said Ms Lim.

Important to know

This herbal oil should not be applied to the eyes and open wounds, according to the manufacturer's website. This is because camphor is toxic when absorbed by the body in large amounts, said Ms Lim.

Also, the oil is for external use only, she added. Hence, it may be unsafe to apply this herbal oil on mouth ulcers, which may lead to accidental ingestion.


Used for Muscle aches caused by exertion when engaging in sports and exercise.

What makes it work?

Not all brands of medicated plasters contain the same active ingredients.

Plasters like Ketotop contain ketoprofen, which has anti-inflammatory qualities, said Dr Ben Tan, head and senior consultant sports physician at Changi Sports Medicine Centre.

Medicated plasters may have an edge over topical creams because they allow for prolonged application. 'Presumably there is better penetration of the drug,' said Dr Tan.

How safe is the product?

Side effects may vary, depending on the active ingredient in the particular brand of plaster. According to several product labels of medicated plasters, these may include skin irritations at the site of application, such as rashes and itchiness.

Important to know

The relief may only be symptomatic and this may mask a possible muscle injury.

'For plasters containing menthol, the hot sensation distracts the individual from the original nagging pain,' said Dr Tan. 'The menthol does nothing to cure the problem.' So, it is best to consult a doctor if pain persists.

This story was first published in Mind Your Body, The Straits Times.

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