Menthol

What is menthol?

Menthol is either derived naturally from peppermint or other mint oils or synthetically manufactured. When used as an active ingredient in over-the-counter (OTC) medicines, menthol has a number of different uses. Depending on the dose and form, menthol can be used to relieve coughs; help control plaque or kill bacteria that can contribute to the development of gingivitis; relieve oral discomfort associated with canker sores, injury of the mouth and gums, sore throat, fever blisters, or cold sores; relieve minor aches and pains of muscles and joints; and relieve irritated lips and skin.

When taken orally or used topically in or around the mouth, menthol can be the only ingredient in topical cough suppressant medicines (such as lozenges or sprays) or it can be combined with other ingredients in oral multi-symptom cough and cold medicines, anti-gingivitis and anti-plaque products, or oral discomfort products.

Products used externally for topical pain relief may contain either menthol alone or menthol in combination with other active ingredients. Menthol can also be combined with other active ingredients in cough suppressant medicines (such as chest rubs and steam vaporizers) and skin protectants.

What is menthol used to treat?

  • Cough
  • Plaque or bacteria in the mouth that can contribute to gingivitis
  • Oral discomfort
  • Sore throat
  • Minor aches and pains
  • Irritated lips and skin
Common brands containing menthol:

For cough and sore throat:

  • Cepaco
  • Sucrets
  • Vicks

For minor aches and pains:

  • Absorbine Jr.
  • Aspercreme
  • Bengay
  • Boroleum
  • Buckley’s
  • Deep Heating
  • Fisherman’s Friend
  • Icy Hot
  • Mentholatum
  • Salonpas
  • Satogesic
  • Stopain

For plaque or bacteria in the mouth:

  • Chloraseptic
  • Listerine

For irritated lips and skin: 

  • Blistex
  • Carmex
  • Gold Bond
  • Palmer’s

For oral discomfort: 

  • Orajel

Additional store brands (ex. Walmart’s “Equate” store brand or CVS Health store brand)

How much menthol can you take?

Different types of products containing this active ingredient have different strengths. That’s why it is always important to read and follow the Drug Facts label. Most medicines warn against use of an active ingredient for longer than 7-10 days. Stop and ask a doctor if symptoms persist.

Safety guide for menthol

Menthol is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and is safe and effective when used according to the Drug Facts label.

Safe use tips for cough or sore throat medicines:
  • Topical cough suppressant lozenges should be placed in the mouth and dissolved slowly. You should never swallow a lozenge whole.
Safe use tips for mouth rinses:
  • Anti-gingivitis and anti-plaque products should not be swallowed.
Safe use tips for topical medicines to treat minor aches and pains:
  • Medicines intended to be applied to the skin should not be swallowed.
  • Certain products may be flammable. Keep away from open flame.
  • You should never heat, microwave, or add the medicine to hot water.
  • You should not bandage tightly or use a heating pad on the treated area.
  • You should avoid getting the product into your eyes, nose, or mouth.
  • You should not apply to wounds or damaged skin.

Ask a healthcare provider before use if:

For cough or sore throat medicines:
  • You are pregnant or breastfeeding.
For topical medicines to treat minor aches and pains: 
  • You are pregnant or breastfeeding.
For oral discomfort medicines: 
  • Talk to a healthcare provider before using an oral discomfort product containing menthol with a child under the age of 2. Children between the ages of 2 and 12 should be supervised when using these medicines.

Do not use if:

For cough and sore throat medicines:
  • Do not give cough suppressant lozenges to young children.
  • Do not give an oral OTC cough medicine or multi-symptom cough and cold product to a child under the age of 4.
For mouth rinses and oral discomfort medicines:
  • Do not use an anti-gingivitis or anti-plaque mouth rinse containing menthol with a child under the age of 12.
  • Talk to a healthcare provider before using an oral discomfort product containing menthol with a child under the age of 2. Children between the ages of 2 and 12 should be supervised when using these medicines.

Stop use and ask a doctor if:

For cough and sore throat medicines:
  • Your cough persists for more than 7 days, tends to recur, or is accompanied by a fever, rash, or persistent headache.
  • Your symptoms do not improve, get worse, or if you develop additional symptoms.
  • You take too much or you accidentally ingest a medicine that is not intended to be swallowed.  Immediately contact a healthcare provider or the poison control national helpline at 800.222.1222.
For mouth rinses:
  • You have painful or swollen gums.
  • Gingivitis, bleeding, or redness persists for more than two weeks.
  • Your symptoms do not improve, get worse, or if you develop additional symptoms.
  • You take too much or you accidentally ingest a medicine that is not intended to be swallowed. Anti-gingivitis and anti-plaque products should not be swallowed if you are using a mouth rinse containing menthol. Immediately contact a healthcare provider or the poison control national helpline at 800.222.1222.

What are the side effects of menthol?

  • Although rare, get emergency medical help if you have signs of an allergic reaction from oral or topical application of menthol: hives, difficulty breathing, or swelling of your face, lips, tongue, or throat.