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Camphor (Cinnamomum camphora) is a whitish solid with a strong, distinctive aroma found in the wood of the Camphor laurel, a large evergreen tree native to eastern Asia and parts of northern Africa. Camphor oil is a natural preservative and insect repellent - many travelling and storage trunks and cabinets were once made from camphor wood to help preserve their contents.
For thousands of years, camphor has been prized for its bacteria-fighting and preservative powers. Indian Ayurvedic medicine has used camphor as an antibacterial agent for over 5,000 years, and Africans have used camphor bark to fight fever and malaria and as an antiseptic. During the 1800s camphor was very popular in both America and Europe, where people often wore camphor crystals around their necks to treat respiratory ailments and to ward off infectious disease. Today camphor is still used to treat colds and help fight bacteria.
Research has shown that camphor does kill bacteria and fight infection although it is not recommended for treatment of open wounds, as it can cause irritation. Camphor oil was traditionally massaged into sprains and sore muscles and joints for pain relief, and most modern herbalists agree that this is the best use for pure camphor oil. Camphor has been shown to help ease inflammation by acting as a counter-irritant and numbing the peripheral sensory nerves. It also warms the skin and is easily absorbed when applied topically, making it a particularly effective treatment for arthritic and rheumatic joint pain.
Camphor is still used in many commercial ointments, salves, deodorants, disinfectants, insecticides, paint solvents and soaps. You can also purchase pure camphor oil, but keep in mind that injection of camphor oil is no longer recommended, as its consumption could be fatal. However, white camphor oil, from which poisonous chemicals have been removed, is perfectly safe and an active ingredient in some sweets and cough drops. In fact, white camphor is quite effective as a cough suppressant. It contains substances that coat and soothe the lining of the upper respiratory system and prevent the cough reflex.
If you apply camphor topically, make sure that you avoid inhaling the fumes, as over-exposure to these can be toxic. People with seizure disorders should not ingest or inhale camphor as it has been known to induce seizures in susceptible individuals. Pure camphor oil should not be used regularly over an extended period of time as it has been known to build up to poisonous levels in the body.