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Vapor Rubs: Do They Really Work?

by Sue Hubbard, M.D.

There was a great article recently published in the online journal of Pediatrics.  I had to read it as it was titled, “Vapor Rub, Petrolatum, or No Treatment for Nocturnal Cough”.  Having been a fan of both Vick’s Vapor Rub and Mentholatum since I was a child, I knew it was a MUST read article.

You can ask all of my family members, once we hit cough and cold season, the “vapor rub” jar goes next to my bed to help me during my frequent colds (see previous posts!).  I have such fond memories of being with my grandmother, Gaga, who at the first sign of a cold,  would rub Vicks all over my chest, which was then occluded by a warm damp CLEAN dishtowel, then followed by my flannel nightgown.  She would lovingly tuck me into bed, and shut the door and the whole room smelled like camphor, and menthol.   To me it was wonderful, my brother hated it!!

As I grew older, my mother would hear me sniffle or blow my nose and down the hall she would come with the trusty Vick’s jar for self-application.

Once I became a mother, in the family tradition, I too would rub a little Vick’s on my children’s chest, with no basis on medical fact, only what Gaga did. Funny thing, we all seemed to get better.

Two of my own children grew to despise the tradition, while one still asks for Vick’s or Mentholatum when he gets a cold.  There are old jars all over the house. I even bought several of the “plug ins” to use during cold season, which are the new fangled way to get that wonderful VR aroma into the room. They make a great stocking stuffer!

So, with that history, what could be better than a study out of Penn State University that looked at the use of vapor rub (VR) to improve cold symptoms and nighttime cough.  With the recent FDA guidelines which limit the use of OTC cough and cold products in young children, many parents are at a loss as to what to do to help their child’s cold symptoms.

The investigators looked at 138 children between the ages of 2 – 11 years. They were randomized to receive vapor rub (VR), petrolatum alone or no therapy.  Parents were then asked to grade their child’s symptoms and sleep on Day 1 when none of the children received therapy, and then again on Day 2 when they were randomized to therapy.  The VR group scored best in improving cough, congestion and overall sleep for the children (and therefore their parents). This is the first evidence based therapeutic trial that I am aware of, for a remedy that is over a century old.

As noted in the article, there were some irritant effects seen in the VR group with complaints of a stinging sensation to eyes, nose and or skin (I can hear my own children saying “it’s stingy”).

Most of these complaints were transient in nature.  Despite older concerns about camphor when it was used as an oil that could cause possible toxicity if swallowed, skin exposure alone really has little systemic effect.   The FDA has approved camphor as an effective anti-cough preparation (anti-tusssive), but has limited concentrations to 11%. The concentration in VR is 4.8%.

So, if parent’s are trying to improve nighttime cough and sleep disturbance in their children over the age of 2, there is a study to show it is time to go back to vapor rub preparations.  The mechanism for improved sleep is not really known, but whether it improves cold symptoms directly or through the aromatic effects, a better night’s sleep is good for everyone!!!  Could there be coupons to follow?

That;s your daily dose for today.  We’ll chat again tomorrow.

Send your question or comment to Dr. Sue!

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3 Responses to “Vapor Rubs: Do They Really Work?”

  1. Julie N. says:

    I did not believe the VR hype–I’d tried it with my daughter 2 years ago and it did not work. Turns out, she had pertussis, and a little VR is NOT going to stop that cough.

    I tried it this fall with my son. He was coughing throughout the night, keeping the entire family awake. I put the VR on the soles of his feet and put socks on him. Then I put some VR on his chest. Within minutes, he was sleeping peacefully and so was I.

  2. Mary Ann says:

    When I use Vick’s, I put some-a little bit-under my nose, not liking to have the petroleum left on my chest. My mom applies the way you discuss in post, with a piece of flannel where you use the dishcloth. And I label jar with the date I open it, -it seems to lose it’s punch after a year, I buy only the small size, now.

    I have recently added a Watkins product to my medicine cabinet-Menthol Lavender “Breathe Easy” Drops. You put some on a folded handkerchief and pin it to the pajamas and it works great-and contains no camphor. As a Vick’s Vapor Rub customer all my life, I would heartily endorse this product, too here are the Ingredients:

    Ingredients: Alcohol, menthol, lavender oil, eucalyptus oil.

  3. Linda says:

    We use it on our boys’ feet at night to control coughing. My mom told me about it. Put on the bottom of their feet, slip on a pair of socks and it works!

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