The Vicks VapoRub Debate

In 1905, a North Carolina pharmacist began marketing a product called Vick’s Magic Croup Salve. The product, now known as Vicks VapoRub, became wildly popular — sales during the 1918 flu epidemic grew from $900,000 to $2.9 million.

More than 100 years later, some still swear by the product.

“My husband loves Vicks. He rubs it on his chest and under his nose,” reports 37-year-old Shannon Marks, of Mandeville, La. Marks says other family members use it to relieve a cough and even to ease dry feet, but she doesn’t use it on herself or for treating her children’s cold symptoms. “We’ve used the vapors in a humidifier and we’ve bought the plug-ins.”

There’s a reason that some people don’t use Vicks VapoRub on their children: Recently, researchers found that putting Vicks VapoRub under a child’s nose actually makes it harder for the child to breathe.

Vicks VapoRub: Camphor Concerns

The report earlier this year was not the first time that products like Vicks VapoRub that contain camphor have come under scrutiny. Camphor has long been used in combination with menthol in a variety of preparations that are promoted as chest rubs to fight colds by soothing coughing and opening stuffy noses.

However, camphor is also highly toxic: Eating or drinking as little as five milliliters of camphor oil can kill a child.

As a result, in 1983, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration decided that camphor-containing products such as Vicks VapoRub could not contain more than an 11 percent concentration of the substance. Vicks VapoRub contains less than 4.8 percent camphor.

Vicks VapoRub: The Chest Report

Camphor concerns aside, researchers say there is no science to back up the claim that Vicks VapoRub makes it easier to breathe.

In fact, putting Vicks VapoRub directly under the nose, as opposed to rubbing it on the chest, may actually make it harder to breathe, according to results from a study published in the journal Chest. In children under age 2, this could result in an increase in mucus and congestion.

“We showed in the lab that Vicks VapoRub produced changes consistent with inflammation and increased mucus in animals with pre-existing airway inflammation similar to that seen with a respiratory infection,” says Bruce K. Rubin, MD, MBA, chair of the department of pediatrics at Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine in Richmond.

Dr. Rubin and his colleagues tested the effects of Vicks VapoRub after treating a young girl who was brought to the emergency room with breathing problems after having Vicks VapoRub placed under her nose. Rubin said he has heard of similar accounts.

Other studies have shown that menthol, one of the ingredients of Vicks VapoRub, may also make it harder to breathe, despite creating a “cooling” sensation that feels like easier breathing.

“Although [Vicks VaporRub] does not [open you up], it does trigger receptors that make the brain believe that your nose is more open and it is easier to breathe,” says Rubin.

Vicks VapoRub: Vicks’ Instructions

Rubin notes that the labeling on Vicks VapoRub clearly states that it should not be used on young children and should not be placed under the nose.

“Parents should only follow the directions on the label,” Rubin says. Procter & Gamble, the manufacturer "has been very clear in its labeling that VicksVapoRub is never to be used in children under the age of 2 and never placed directly in or beneath the nose of adults or children. [The company] is also acting responsibly about educating patients as to when and how to use the product safely.”

On its Web site, Procter & Gamble gives these cautions that specifically say not to use Vicks VapoRub:

  • By mouth
  • With tight bandages
  • In nostrils
  • On wounds or damaged skin

The site also says that you should contact your doctor if you have a cough that lasts more than seven days, produces a lot of phlegm, or is a chronic cough due to asthma, emphysema, or other lung disease. Additionally, the company states that Vicks VapoRub should never be heated before use. If your child eats some of the product, contact Poison Control immediately. Procter & Gamble has a line of products, such as Vicks BabyRub, that are specifically made to be safe for babies over 3 months old and toddlers.

Vicks VapoRub: Signs of Overdose

Although an overdose of Vicks VapoRub is unlikely if you follow the directions and keep it out of the reach of children, it is important to know the signs of an overdose and respond immediately:

  • Stomach pain, vomiting, nausea
  • Burning sensation in the mouth or throat
  • Seizures and perhaps muscles in spasm
  • Being thirsty
  • Speedy pulse
  • Restlessness or agitation
  • Losing consciousness
  • Difficulty breathing

When using Vicks VapoRub, remember to apply it only on the chest, keep it out of children's reach, and do not use it on children younger than 2 years old.

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