Can Vicks VapoRub on Your Feet Help With a Cough?

Some people swear that if you put Vicks VapoRub on your feet (or, more likely, your child's feet) it will help with a cough. While the product has been available and popular for many years, you should know that Vicks is not completely safe for kids. And so far, medical science offers no evidence that it's effective when used on the feet, despite some popular ideas to the contrary that may be circulating.

How Vicks VapoRub Works

Vicks VapoRub can help you feel like you're breathing better when you're congested. It works by creating menthol vapors that feel cooling to your nasal passages when you inhale them, which tricks your brain into thinking you're breathing more easily. It does not actually relieve congestion or a cough—your brain just thinks it does.

How to apply vaporub.
Tim Liedtke / Verywell

When you know that, it seems extremely unlikely that putting it on the soles of your feet (rather than the chest, as directed) would provide any benefit at all since the product is too far from your nose to get substantial benefit from the aromatherapy.

Use on Feet

No scientific studies have been performed on whether Vicks VapoRub on your feet eases a cough. As such, it's not certain whether it does or doesn't, despite what some proponents of this home remedy may say.

A popular hypothesis has sprung up online that VapoRub may stimulate the nerves in your feet, which in turn may stimulate the spinal cord and, then, the medulla oblongata—the part of your brain that regulates coughing.

Some compare this idea to one of the theories on easing muscle cramps. Basically, some scientists believe that at least one type of muscle cramp is caused by hyperactivity of certain nerves, and numerous placebo-controlled studies have shown that drinking a concoction of pungent and hot spices (including cinnamon and capsaicin) can distract these nerves and relieve the cramps.

If that's true, they say it's possible that the Vicks product might have a similar impact on the nervous system that's completely separate from its aromatherapy properties. Therefore, it might be able to calm a cough, even though it is applied so far away from the nose.

It's important to remember, though, that a popular idea that sounds plausible is a far cry from a scientific theory that's been put through rigorous study and evaluation. Many a plausible-sounding idea has been proven false by research.

Careful Use

While you may think the risk of using Vicks VapoRub is minimal because it's a long-used over-the-counter product, it comes with serious, well-deserved warnings that need to be respected. 

Even if someday VapoRub on the feet is studied and shown to alleviate a cough, it's important to be aware of the following:

  • It contains a poisonous ingredient: Vicks VapoRub is made of camphor, eucalyptus oil, and menthol. Camphor is poisonous when ingested. It can cause seizures, coma, or death even when a small amount is swallowed or when too much is inhaled or absorbed through the skin.
  • It's not for small children: The Vicks VapoRub packaging clearly states that the product shouldn't be used on children under 2 years of age, but many people ignore the warning. (This goes for anywhere on the body.)
  • It shouldn't be put under the nose: In adults and children older than 2, the product should only be used on the chest.

It's proven, through studies and real-world incidents, that putting Vicks VapoRub directly under the nose can lead to respiratory distress or difficulty breathing. 

A Word From Verywell

Vicks VapoRub is a popular product with some valid uses, but some common uses are unproven and come with serious risks. If you're concerned about cough and congestion, talk to a doctor about the best ways to ease symptoms. And never forego other treatments in favor of this product alone.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Can Vicks make your hair grow?

    Some people claim it does, but there’s no proof. One of the main ingredients in Vicks, menthol, has been shown to stimulate hair growth in animal studies, but the mix of ingredients in Vicks may not have the same benefits.

  • What happens if you swallow Vicks VapoRub?

    Ingesting a small taste will probably not be harmful to children or adults, but the camphor in Vicks is toxic and can cause vomiting, seizures, respiratory distress, coma, or even death, depending on how much is consumed.

  • Can putting Vicks on your feet help you sleep better?

    Vicks rubbed on the chests of children with cold symptoms can improve their quality of sleep. However, there’s no evidence that rubbing it on someone’s feet (whether ill or healthy) will help ensure a good night’s rest.

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Article Sources
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Additional Reading
  • National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine: PubChem. Isoborneol (compound).