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Good Health and Bad Medicine:
 First Aid - Part 1

 First Aid - Part 2

 First Aid - Part 3

 First Aid - Part 4

 First Aid - Part 5

 First Aid - Part 6

 Medicine Cabinet


 Pain - Part 2

 Liniments, Rubbing Salves And Plasters

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Liniments, Rubbing Salves And Plasters

( Originally Published 1940 )

Liniments for the relief of painful afflictions were applied with literally heroic vigor in the dark ages of medicine. Their use was based upon the assumption that morbid humors or juices were responsible for the pain and could be drawn away from the affected part by application of a "counter-irritant" to the skin. With the advent of pathology and physiology as sciences, physicians became aware that it was impossible to "draw out" disease by counterirritants.

While liniments cannot do as much as our forefathers thought they could, they nevertheless do have a useful if limited place in the treatment of painful afflictions. Considerable relief, for example, can be obtained in muscular pains and aches and neuralgia by the skillful use of a well-chosen liniment.

Most liniments are solutions or mixtures of irritating drugs in an oily, soapy or alcoholic vehicle. These vehicles are chosen because they facilitate rubbing. As a matter of fact the rubbing or massage is more important than the liniment. The kneading and rubbing of a painful muscle or group of muscles cause an increased blood flow to the affected part. It is this increase in the flow of blood that is the essence of the virtue of "counterirritation." Liniments or salves do not penetrate more than a few millimeters below the skin surface. Claims such as Baume Bengué's, that penetration occurs to muscle or deep painful regions, are entirely false.

Although many drugs are used as ingredients of liniments, alcohol is often the principal or the sole ingredient. Rubbing alcohol for massage purposes should be grain or ethyl alcohol rendered unfit for beverage purposes by the addition of suit-able chemicals. There are a large number of these "de-natured" or medicated rubbing alcohols on the market. Any brand will do if it contains 70% alcohol, but make sure it is 70% and not 70 proof. The latter is actually a 35% solution of alcohol in water. Recently, the U. S. Food & Drug Administration found that in some sections of the country a large proportion of the "alcohol rubs" are based, not upon ethyl"' alcohol, as they are supposed to be, but upon a product known as isopropanol, which may not be as safe or as effective as ethyl alcohol.

Other liniments contain irritants such as turpentine, camphor and even red pepper. The only difference between the various liniments is in the various degrees of irritation that they cause. Many of them are extremely irritating to the skin and mucous membrane, and serious burns, blisterings or infections may result from their use. The skin of children particularly is likely to suffer from the application of a strong liniment such as Sloan's.

The claims made for proprietary liniments are reminiscent of the advertising leaflets that accompanied Lydia Pinkham's Vegetable Tonic many years ago. Liniments are advertised for the relief or cure of skin irritations, poison ivy, sunburn, corns, cold feet, perspiring feet, cuts, infections, chapped skin, varicose veins, toothache, dandruff, neuralgia, head-ache, rectal disorders, colds and coughs. Such claims are misleading or downright fraudulent.

Liniments are useful for the relief of muscular aches following hard exercise or exposure to wet and cold. In association with other measures prescribed by a physician, they may also be helpful for the relief of joint disorders and neuralgias. They will not accomplish any of the wonders promised by advertising copy. A liniment, rubbed on the skin or used for massage, should produce no more than a mild redness of the skin.

Rubbing salves for the treatment of "chest colds" or the "common cold" have no effect on these disorders. Many, like Penetro, Musterole, Mentholatum and Vick's Vaporub, contain menthol, camphor or similar volatile oils and give a sensation of warmth to the area of skin on which they are rubbed. A similar effect can be obtained with non-proprietary products such as camphor or chloroform liniment, U.S.P. Other remedies contain odd and irrational combinations such as iodine in Iodex or aspirin in Aspirub. Neither iodine nor aspirin will penetrate from the skin to an inflamed area, and if they did, it would be difficult to tell of what possible use they would be there. Disregard all claims for such compounds.

No preparation applied to the skin will reach the bronchial tubes or cure a cold or bronchitis. But an aching sensation in the chest which often accompanies a "common cold" or grippe, may be relieved by rubbing on an ointment or liniment, provided the skin is not too sensitive. Chest pain, however, is also a symptom of lung infections, such as pneumonia, and so medical care is imperative if such pain is associated with fever. If a counterirritant is desired, a mustard poultice, frequently prescribed by physicians, will give the greatest satisfaction. It is prepared as follows: Mix dry mustard and wheat flour in the proper proportions and add sufficient lukewarm water to form a smooth paste just thin enough to spread. Hot water will destroy the irritant action of the mustard, so be sure the water is only lukewarm. The proportions of mustard and flour vary according to the age of the patient. For an adult, use one part of mustard to two parts of flour; for a child use one to three, and for an infant, one to four. The amounts used will depend on the extent of the area to be covered.

Spread the paste on one end of an oblong double thickness of old clean linen or cotton cloth. Turn in the edges to prevent the escape of the paste and fold the free end of the cloth over the top. Place the poultice on a hot water bottle or radiator to take the chill off, and cover it with a towel.

Before applying the plaster, spread a thin layer of vaseline or olive oil on the skin as a protection from burns. Always bear in mind that burns caused by mustard are very painful and slow to heal.

The duration of the application varies. When the skin is well reddened the desired effect has been obtained. This usually takes from 10 to 20 minutes. Examine the skin frequently after the plaster has been on for five minutes.

The same poultice may be applied two or three times daily if necessary. Always warm it up a little before each application.

Mustard plasters may be bought ready-made. They are applied to the chest front and back for about 20 minutes each. Sensitive skins usually cannot tolerate an application of that length.


Rubbing alcohol Bay Rum

Chloroform liniment, U.S.P. Oil of Wintergreen, diluted

Camphor liniment, U.S.P. with equal parts of olive oil Witch Hazel


(Because of misleading claims or excessively irritant effects)

Sloan's Liniment Minard's Liniment Minit Rub

Omega Oil Moone's Emerald Absorbine Jr.

Heet Oil Zodex

Pain-Expeller Japanese Oil Aspirub

Mentholaturn Bet-u-lol Vick's Vaporub

Musterole Mac's Liquid Mustard Plaster Penetro

Baume Bengué

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