Learn if Vicks Vapo Rub on Feet Can Help With a Cough

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Can Vicks on your feet help with cough?. Katrin Thomas/The Image Bank/Getty Images

Have you heard that if you put Vicks VapoRub on your feet (or more likely - your child's feet) it will help with a cough? It's surprisingly common advice. Using Vicks VapoRub on children is a common yet controversial practice. Although it has been available and popular for many years, you should know that Vicks is not completely safe for kids. 

Recommended Usage

Vicks VapoRub is made up of camphor, menthol and eucalyptus oil. Camphor is poisonous when ingested. It can cause seizures or death even when just a few teaspoonfuls are swallowed. While most people don't spoon feed Vicks VapoRub to their children, it can be toxic even when absorbed through the skin or mucous membranes. 

Vicks VapoRub should never be used on children under 2 years old (this is clearly stated on the package but many people ignore the warning). In children and adults older than 2, it should only be used on the chest -- never directly under the nose.

Cases have been reported and studies have proven that putting Vicks VapoRub directly under the nose can lead to respiratory distress or difficulty breathing. That's right. The very substance you are using to try to make it easier to breathe can actually make it more difficult. Although you may think the risk is minimal, there are reasons that this product contains the warning that it does. 

Putting Vicks VapoRub on the Feet

There is no direct evidence that putting Vicks VapoRub on the feet will have any benefit. Many people swear by this treatment and are sure that it cures coughs. As far as I have found, there is no scientific evidence or research to back up this claim. 

If you plan to try it, heed the warnings above. Never put Vicks VapoRub anywhere on the body of a child under 2 years old. Whether it is on the chest, feet or anywhere else, the camphor can be absorbed and unnecessarily puts your child's health at risk. Babies love to put their feet in their mouths too, increasing the chance of ingesting the toxic ingredients. 

The way that Vicks VapoRub "works" is by inhaling the vapors created by the rub, your brain is tricked into thinking you are breathing more easily. It does not actually relieve congestion or a cough, your brain just thinks that it does because of the smells that are produced.

Knowing that it seems extremely unlikely that putting it on the soles of your feet would provide any benefit at all since your feet are so far from your nose and you would get very little of the aromatherapy benefit. 

The Bottom Line

Vicks VapoRub may be a popular product but it isn't without risks. Keep in mind that just because someone you know has done something like using Vicks on their child's feet and claimed that it worked, that doesn't mean it will be safe or effective for your child. If you are concerned about your child's congestion, talk to her physician about the best way to help her breathe a little easier. 

View Article Sources
  • Juan Carlos Abanses, MD; Shinobu Arima, MD; Bruce K. Rubin, MD, FCCP. "Vicks VapoRub Induces Mucin Secretion, Decreases Ciliary Beat Frequency, and Increases Tracheal Mucus Transport in the Ferret Trachea". Chest. 2009;135(1):143-148. doi:10.1378/chest.08-0095. 26 Mar 15.
  • "Isoborneol". ToxNet 5 Mar 13. Toxicology Data Network. National Library of Medicine. National Institutes of Health. Department of Health and Human Services. 26 Mar 15. 
  • "Health Department Warns Parents to Keep Camphor Products Away From Children". Press Release 17 Jan 08. The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. 26 Mar 15. 
  • Hoecker MD, Jay. "When I had a cold as a child, my mother put a little Vicks VapoRub under my nose to help me breathe more easily. Does this really work?" Common Cold 20 Feb 14. Mayo Clinic. Mayo Foundation for Medical Research. 26 Mar 15.