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How does Menthol Help Congestion? It May Not be What You Think...

How does Menthol Help Congestion? It May Not be What You Think...

We’ve all struggled through a cold that seems to never end, leaving us willing to try anything to get some relief. And everyone has some advice about how to make it better: hot water, cold water, and every kind of sleeping position. Another classic home remedy is menthol, which opens up your airways with its minty, tingly scent (any Vicks Vaporub fans out there?). But as it turns out, this is actually kind of a myth.

Does Menthol Really Work for Congestion?

Menthol has been commonly used in rubs, inhalants, and candies to alleviate the symptoms of nasal congestion. There's a misconception about how it works, though. You see, menthol doesn’t actually clear your blocked passages. But it does make you feel like you're breathing better. How does it do this?

Applied topically as an ingredient in products like Vicks Vaporub, menthol works by creating a cooling and numbing sensation. It's kind of like those chewing gum commercials where people are overcome with minty freshness. Well maybe not that extreme. But the feeling kind of evades description - not quite wintergreen or spearmint, it's more like the general smell of cold. But why is this sensation perceived as a smell? Last time I checked, my nose detects scents - not temperature.

Well basically it’s your mind playing tricks on you.

What Science Says About Menthol

Usually when your skin is exposed to cold temperatures a signal is triggered in your nervous system which your brain detects as cold. This happens through a specific protein channel. Somehow, the smell of menthol is also able to activate this channel, even though it's not actually cold. Nevertheless, your really smart (sometimes dumb) brain detects the signal, and you feel cold in your nose. You know when else you feel cold in your nose? When you have a nice open airway and are able to inhale a whole bunch of fresh cold air… yeah menthol tricks your brain into experiencing that feeling.

How To Use Menthol for Natural Sinus and Pain Relief

So Grandma was right, to an extent. Menthol does provide relief, just not the way you expected. You can take advantage of this effect during the cold season and after injuries, both from athletics and clumsiness (you know who you are...). Rubbing some menthol on your chest may provide some relief from stubborn cold congestion and sinus pain through its cooling and numbing properties, but it doesn't actually physically improve your congestion.

Menthol can also be used for pain relief for injuries. By stimulating a cold sensation where applied, menthol numbs the area and essentially blocks pain- just like an ice pack. It has also been shown to increase blood flow to injured areas and reduce inflammation. This allows injuries to heal faster and decreases the chance of long term damage or pain.

Maximize Your Congestion Relief

You might choose to reach for the menthol if you've already tried other cures or want to optimize what you're already doing to find relief. Just keep in mind that the better able you’re to breathe through your nose, the greater the effect of relief will be. Next time a cold seems to be ruining your day, check out Hale-Aid to maximize the effect of the menthol sensation. Like us on Facebook, follow us on Instagram at @breathehale, and sign up to our mailing list at to learn more.

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