How can you overdose on BenGay?

- asks Jason from Virginia

[Credit: BBC]
By | Posted August 13, 2007
Posted in: Ever Wondered?, Health
Tags: , ,

While most of the time consumers pick BenGay up off the shelf without a second thought, the recent death of a 17-year-old track star—because of the ointment—made the public pause. Arielle Newman, who regularly used BenGay to relieve the aches and pains resulting from her track training, died from an accidental overdose of methyl salicylate, the active ingredient found in BenGay.

Methyl salicylate is found in many over-the-counter creams, ointments and lotions that are used to help relieve muscle aches and pains. Products like Icy Hot, Bayer Muscle Joint Cream, BenGay and Tiger Balm all have varying levels of the chemical, which is found not only in liniments, but also in aspirin products.

The most potent form of methyl salicylate is oil of wintergreen, a liquid concentrate that comes from wintergreen leaf fermentation (or, now, can be made synthetically). The oil is used medicinally, either in herbal treatments or more traditional methods, to treat headaches, muscle pains and stomach disorders. It’s also included in food, candy, gum and toothpaste as flavoring, while other companies use it for air fresheners.

Oil of wintergreen contains 98 percent methyl salicylate, so it’s highly toxic in its pure form. In young children, a teaspoon of oil of wintergreen is equivalent to taking 22 adult aspirins—and, therefore, is lethal. (Keep in mind, however, that one would have to eat spoonfuls of ointment to ingest a teaspoon’s worth of the oil.) While common, over-the-counter ache-relief products contain a much lower percentage of methyl salicylate than is contained in oil of wintergreen—for example, both Icy Hot and BenGay Extra Strength contain 30 percent, the highest percentage of all topical creams—their toxic potential is real: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration mandate that any product containing five percent or more of methyl salicylate carry a warning label stating it must be used as directed and kept out of the reach of children. Lethal, however, is never mentioned—so what circumstances lead to Newman’s death?

One of the warnings on the BenGay label explains the cream shouldn’t be used with a heating pad. These devices open pores and also cause the cream to melt, spreading it over a larger surface area. These two seemingly innocuous circumstances increase absorption of the cream into the body, and can lead to an overdose of methyl salicylate. While Newman never used a heating pad, she applied BenGay before a track meet, where her running and sweating acted as a sort of heating pad, resulting in over-absorption and toxicity.

Liniments can also become toxic when the creams are mixed with other members of the salicylate family, such as aspirin or the stomach-calmer Pepto-Bismol. A topical cream sinks into pores, reaching muscles and nerves close to the skin. However, some of that medicine also enters the bloodstream. If you were to then ingest a type of salicylate, like aspirin, on top of using an ointment, the chemical could build-up in your bloodstream, acting as a poison. Not only that, poisoning can result from mixing several different brands that contain methyl salicylate. In fact, Newman’s autopsy results showed that she was not only using BenGay, but she was also using adhesive pads which contained the anti-inflammatory and an additional third unidentified product. Doctors said the combination of salicylate products lead to the high levels of methyl salicylate, which caused Newman’s death.

According to an article in the Journal of Emergency Medicine, while there are several case studies of methyl salicylate mortality, there are no dedicated reviews. The author writes, “A medical literature search found many case reports and a few case series involving methyl salicylate intoxication, yet failed to reveal any clinical studies.”

It is extremely rare for individuals over the age of 12 to experience methyl salicylate poisoning, mostly because of the greater body mass of an adult compared to a child. Additionally, the JEM article notes the consistency of creams and ointments containing methyl salicylate makes ingestion of large volumes difficult. That, combined with the low concentration in the creams, makes significant toxicity from liniments unlikely.

But unlikely is not impossible: The widespread over-the-counter availability of these products makes consumers mistakenly assume that they’re all safe, all the time. This assumption usually only holds when any drug is used as directed and by itself.

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  1. Dang, I would never have guessed it possible to OD on BG!

    Paul Jaffe, August 19, 2007 at 11:47 pm
  2. My husband put on bengay this morning after his shower and his skin turned beet red and started burning. The tube we had was about 9 years old so I wonder if it separated and he only got the methyl salicylate. He actually started having trouble breathing and was standing in an ice cold shower because his skin was burning. We washed it off with soap and he soaked in a cold tub and about an hour later was feeling better. I never thought bengay could be so bad.

    dajaa, January 28, 2008 at 9:09 am
  3. I have many times used both the ointment and then the patches, alternating them, and then using an oral pain and antiinflammatory as well. Makes one think.

    JMailbox, February 17, 2008 at 11:26 am
  4. There is also the third “unknown product” which could be anything from heroin to LSD.

    Bob J, March 5, 2008 at 5:45 pm
  5. My sister back in India wants me to get her a Bengay for her leg aches. After reading these pages , wonder if i should at all.. which indian product will be near enough to bengay?

    devi m, May 5, 2008 at 9:25 am
  6. can some one recommend, another product?

    devi m, May 5, 2008 at 9:27 am
  7. icy hot is very good, i use it often. it relieves me from all of my pain that i feel, sometimes when i get sad, i just rub it on and it makess me feel like i belong. thanks icy hot for always being there for me!

    bean, June 17, 2008 at 11:37 am
  8. I agree with bean infact sometimes when i feel sad i rub it on my special area and it makes me happy again. Or sometimes i put it in my soup because it tastes good!!!! :)

    nmiosdhfkj, June 20, 2008 at 5:37 pm
  9. i drank a bottle of wintergreen 4 years ago.the experience was terrible,i ended up telling my mom what i had done,was rushed to hospital,they pumped charcoal into my stomach.the doctor said that it was a miracle that i survived,because with the amount that i consumed nobody could have survived.i regret trying to end my life.my liver is damaged and i will need a transplant soon.
    i thank god for sparing my life.

    althea, September 3, 2008 at 8:22 am
  10. “anything from heroin to LSD?” Why would she take drugs before a track meet??

    Liz, November 27, 2008 at 1:02 am
  11. If you want to try an all natural pain cream that also has some healing qualities try MYO-MED.

    I have used it on a chronic knee with great success. It is milder than most creams has no salicylate and I use it everyday. I find I have 90% less daily pain and even more range of motion.

    MYO-MED was developed with help of professional athelets including NFL quarterback Tom Brady, who says he also uses it everyday.

    Kman, March 30, 2009 at 11:16 am
  12. I have tried at least 20 different things over the past 30 years for arthritis in my knee. MYO-MED was amazing and i use it every day and no longer take any pills for pain

    JJ, June 21, 2009 at 1:05 am
  13. Hi,

    i found out that absorbine jr is no longer making their original pain patches. i’ve used two every day for the last several years. one on my shoulder and another on my back. it had been my life saver. i was naturally upset when i found i could not get them. now i have tried your new pain patches the ultra strength patches for the arm and back and they have proven to be excellent. i would love it if you could get this product into walmart. i am going to bring them a package so they can see it. none of the other stuff works…at all. i have fibromyalgia and a couple of forms of arthritus. i work 45-50 hours each week and i’m so glad to have these patches so that i can sleep at night.

    thank you,
    cyndi howarth,
    603.892.0532

    cyndi howarth, June 7, 2010 at 12:27 am
  14. I used Mineral Ice for years when I worked in a factory. I hear it on the radio and because at the time they were offering a money back if not happy. I gave it a try. It worked great for me. It is around $8 dollars at Walmart

    Judy Lane, June 16, 2010 at 9:28 am
  15. I am an aromatherapist and I teach others how to use essential oils and make creams, lotions, sal;ves, liniments etc.

    The percentage of wintergreen oil in as responsible formula is 2%, not 30%. You can see my Cougar Balm alternative to Tiger Balm. With only 2%, it works so well that I once numbed an area for many hours.

    The reason that the husband in earlier comments had a burning reaction after getting out of the shower and applying Ben Gay was because his pores were opened from the heat and hot water.

    The althlete died from a combined overdose of three methyl slicylate containing products, not from two such products plus a street drug. It is simply that the third product containing MS has not been identified.

    As a natural health practitioner, if I made a product with more than 10% essential oil, even with a consultation, health history and Individual Prescription, I could get shut down, lose my designations and my house and assetts. It makes you wonder how Ben Gay, Tiger Balm and other toxin peddlers can get away with it all!

    Tracey TieF, December 1, 2010 at 1:09 am
  16. Post #2, dajaa, the exact thing happened to me last night. I took a shower, got out, put some kinda old Ben-Gay on my sore lower back and it immediately started burning. My skin became really red and it was SO painful. I jumped back into the shower, soaped my body, and rinsed in cold water. I eventually felt better, but for the first 10 minutes, the pain was very intense. Anyone have any thoughts on why this happened?

    Joe, December 23, 2010 at 9:07 pm
  17. Post #2/#16…Last night I did the exact same thing. I have never been in so much pain in my life. I felt like my skin was on fire! I had to take a cold shower and insulate my body in towels for half an hour before I could even move. It was so horrible!

    Katie, February 15, 2011 at 3:37 pm
  18. Re: Tracey TieF

    Only two Tiger Balm products contain methyl salicylate. The rest have none. Do some research before you talk badly about a company.

    Lilly, April 6, 2011 at 9:12 am
  19. In which medical department (MUmbai) showroom should i get Icy hot balm

    gonsalves, June 28, 2011 at 12:14 am
  20. Arielle Newman Died from an accidental overdose of METHYL SALICYLATE, The Wintergreen-Scented ingredients found in Liniments Like BENGAY, TIGER BALM EVEN IN ICY HOT,Icy Hot products contain menthol or a combination of menthol and
    methyl salicylate. These ingredients create cooling and warming sensations that
    divert attention from the actual pain and help block the pain signals being sent
    to the brain.

    OLEIA TOPICAL OIL is a scented natural oil that helps relieve all types of aches and pains FAST.

    Applied topically on the aching body part, Oleia Oil readily penetrates the skin and helps control pain. Recommended for all types of body pains such as HEADACHE, MIGRAINE, SINUSITIS, FROZEN SHOULDER, UPPER AND LOWER BACK PAIN, STIFF NECK, JOINT PAIN, WRIST PAIN (CARPAL TUNNEL SYNDROME), DYSMENORRHEA, MUSCLE PAIN, SPRAINS AND SPORT INJURIES.

    Esmey C. Camus, December 14, 2011 at 11:19 pm
  21. I used bengay cold therapy on my neck and shoulder a week ago. It relieved the pain but since then my neck and shoulder feel like the skin has been burned or scratched badly. There is no redness or sign of injury, it has been a week since I used the bengay, could anyone give me an idea of why?

    Trinette, December 19, 2011 at 12:14 am
  22. Devi if you read this article correctly ALL the similar products have the same ingredients, The problem is in HOW you use them and what ELSE you are using its all about being CONSCIENCE of what you are doing and using common sense.

    Tonia, January 16, 2012 at 3:38 am
  23. i didnt realize there was so much to abe concerned aboout as far ass using oral meds with bengay. wow. I accidentally put bengay on my toothbrush. ugh, quickly realized my eror and rinsed repeatedly, hoping all will be ok. washed lips and gums with soap and water. all feel tingly. heere’s hoping alls well

    shirl, July 3, 2012 at 8:37 pm
  24. I was out working in my garden and came inside and put some ultra strength on all over my shoulder and literally thought i was going to die from the burning and got really really bad nauseous!I had my shirt off and i assume the heat of the sun on my shoulder and the strength of the product was not a good combination!I have used this stuff for 25 years and never had such a bad reaction! Great stuff just use as directed and with certain logical precautions!

    chris, July 26, 2013 at 11:32 pm
  25. Pathologist are overworked. I am sorry I don’t believe it. Wouldn’t she be in pain from using too much, it burns.

    Kelly, August 27, 2014 at 8:11 pm
  26. This country is in serious need of pathologists that’s what the real story should be. I’m going to go knock on some wood, and do a hail mary…lol. o.O

    Kelly, August 27, 2014 at 8:17 pm
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