Well Being

Warning: Icy Hot, Other Pain-Reducing Creams Can Burn Your Flesh Off

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When you’ve got sore muscles, nothing sounds better than a deep massage and, possibly, some pain relief or cooling cream, like Bengay or Icy Hot. Unless, of course, you overdo it with the menthol and the cream gives you a third-degree burn, which is what the FDA has released a warning about today.

According to the FDA’s statement, first-, second-, and third-degree chemical burns aren’t common with these products, but they certainly are possible. These blistering burns usually occur within about 24 hours of just a single application. Some require hospitalization.

The products that were found to cause problems contained the active ingredients menthol, methyl salicylate, or capsaicin.

This may seem like kind of a no-brainer–Icy Hot and other topical analgesics (including Capzasin, Flexall, and Mentholatum) are supposed to create a tingling, even slightly burning sensation. But the labels for these products often don’t actually warn about the potential for real skin damage. Here’s a label for Icy Hot:

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And in Bengay’s product information, the only warning about potential burns is regarding combining it with heating pads, but that’s old news. Using heating pads with menthol creams and gels has long been considered a big no-no (again, thanks to a warning by the FDA). Other than that, there’s really no mention of this rare, but potentially disfiguring and painful side effect.

And indeed, these burns are rare. The FDA found that just 43 cases of serious chemical burns related to over-the-counter pain relief creams and gels in all of their databases (some dating back to the 1960s). However, it’s likely that there are numerous unreported cased of blistering and burns that haven’t been included in these numbers–which means it could be more common.

There’s no reason to cease using Icy Hot or other muscle ache creams, but it is good to be aware of the potential complications with their use. Users who experience redness, pain, swelling, or blistering are encouraged to seek medical attention immediately. As the FDA warns, these products should never hurt–they should only feel warm or cool.

Image by Flickr user Demitri Wimalaratne