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FDA warns consumers about topical pain relievers
The FDA has received more than 40 reports of skin injuries or burns associated with over-the-counter topical pain relievers.
September 13th, 2012
01:54 PM ET

FDA warns consumers about topical pain relievers

Sore muscles or joints?  The Food and Drug Administration is warning consumers who typically reach for topical pain relievers to soothe those aches and pains that these products can cause serious burns.

The agency has received more than 40 reports of skin injuries from over-the-counter products including creams, lotions, ointments and patches. Reported brands included Bengay, Icy Hot, Capzasin, Flexall and Metholatum.

Injuries ranged from mild to severe burns.  According to the FDA, in many cases severe burning or blistering occurred within 24 hours of a single application.  Some complications required hospitalization.

"There's no way to predict who will have this kind of reaction to a topical pain reliever for muscles and joints,'" said Dr. Jane Filie, a medical officer in the FDA's Division of Nonprescription Regulation Development (DNRD).

FDA chemist Reynold Tan says the burns are associated with products containing the active ingredients menthol, methyl salicylate and capsaicin. Tan says these ingredients create the sensation of coolness or warmth.  But they should not burn.

According to the FDA, most of the severe burns came from products containing menthol or a menthol/methyl salicylate combination that had more than 3% menthol or 10% methyl salicylate.  Only a few cases involved capsaicin.

Tan says the number of cases is small compared to the number of people who use these products.  But the agency has issued the following advice for consumers using these products:

- don't apply these products to irritated or damaged skin
- don't apply bandages on top of these products
- do not apply heat from a heating pad, hot water bottle or lamp to the area where you have applied product - this can increase the risk of serious burns
- seek medical attention immediately if you experience burning pain or blistering
- report any unexpected side effects to the FDA MedWatch program


soundoff (10 Responses)
  1. Whatever

    Arnica Flora is natural and works wonders for many people

    September 13, 2012 at 16:51 | Report abuse | Reply
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  3. Elle

    As odd as it sounds, the only folks Ive known who had this happen were people who hated sugar. Maybe they were thinner for said reason. People with emphysema athsma or COPD should never use the stuff either. Not sure if its the lack of good circulation or the steriods. But the only people Ive known who blistered on Icy Hot either hated sugar or had athsma with COPD. The second I 'get' but the first is just weird, or just in my circle of experience.

    September 13, 2012 at 18:57 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. IntegrativeC

    It is definitely a good idea to be educated on the correct way to use topical pain relievers. One thing this article did not mention was trying it out on a small area of skin first before applying a lot of it to see if you have a bad reaction. Natural Standard gives topical capsaicin an Evidence Grade of B for lower back pain and an Evidence Grade of C for diabetic nerve pain. It may be a good alternative but sometimes people get pain or redness on their skin when using capsaicin topically.

    September 14, 2012 at 13:41 | Report abuse | Reply
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    September 15, 2012 at 22:02 | Report abuse | Reply
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      Ask the government or read the instruction manual!

      September 16, 2012 at 14:32 | Report abuse |
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  7. Trey

    I use these kinds of products all the time for my chronic tennis elbow and am trying to find a more natural approach do to my heavy usage. Someone recently recommended a product to me called Golf Pain Away that is an all natural topical pain reliever, has anyone tried this? From everything I've read it seems like a pretty safe natural alternative.

    June 21, 2013 at 11:55 | Report abuse | Reply
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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.