Camphor comes from the Cinnamonum camphora tree and is a white crystalline substance. The name is sometimes used to describe odorous substances that come from various other plants, report herbalists at Botanical.com. The Chinese have used oil from the camphor evergreen tree for medicinal purposes for centuries. The oil is also used for burning and making varnish and ink. Camphor repels moths and other insects and can be used to dissolve various resins. In addition to the various benefits of camphor, there are precautions that must be maintained when using the substance.
Camphor can be poisonous when swallowed, report doctors at the Queensland Poisons Information Centre. Camphor is a common material used in chest rubs and vaporizers to clear stuffy sinuses and relieve cold symptoms. The camphor works by making the airways more sensitive to cold air, which provides false relief from the congestion. Chest rubs made with camphor do not have any decongestant properties.
Patients can become very sick if they swallow chest rub made with camphor. Convulsions can begin within five minutes of ingestion. Excessive amounts of camphor rubbed on the chest can cause seizures as well. As little as 10ml of camphor can be lethal for children when swallowed. In addition to seizures, symptoms of camphor poisoning include nausea, vomiting, agitation and stomachaches.
Doctors at the American Academy of Family Physicians report that camphor has no redeeming medical value. The poisons in the oil of camphor can transmit through the skin, making it a dangerous solution for pregnant women. Camphor can transfer through the placenta to the fetus, causing birth defects and stillborn births. Camphorated oil can be particularly dangerous and can cause birth defects even when inhaled.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency approves the use of camphor in pesticides and other agricultural treatments because the exposure to humans and animals is minimal. High doses of inhaled camphor can result in congestive difficulties, however, and continued exposure can lead to respiratory dysfunctions such as emphysema. The EPA reports that camphor is a naturally occurring substance when released from trees and quickly dissipates in the air. Researchers at the agency also approve its use for agricultural purposes because the strong odor of camphor repels most humans and animals.