Using Vicks VapoRub to Treat Cough and Muscle Aches

The popular topical remedy is not suitable for everyone

Vicks VapoRub is a popular over-the-counter (OTC) medication. It is applied to the skin to treat coughs and relieve muscle aches and pain. Both symptoms can be caused by the common cold.

There's no evidence that Vicks VapoRub can cure upper respiratory symptoms. It may help lessen congestion and cough, however. It is also an effective treatment for mild myalgia, or muscle aches.

Vicks VapoRub contains these active ingredients:

  • Camphor
  • Eucalyptus oil
  • Menthol

An active ingredient is an ingredient that makes the drug work. Vicks VapoRub also contains these inactive ingredients:

  • Cedar leaf oil
  • Nutmeg oi
  • Petrolatum
  • Thymol
  • Turpentine oil

Inactive ingredients are ingredients that don't have a therapeutic effect.

This article looks at Vicks VapoRub as a treatment for cough and muscle aches. It also looks at how to use Vicks VapoRub and what some of the side effects might be.

Vicks VapoRub box and jar on a shelf
jaminwell / Getty Images

Who Should Use Vicks VapoRub

Most people over the age of 2 can safely use Vicks VapoRub. Ask your doctor first, however, if you:

  • Are pregnant or breastfeeding
  • Have a chronic cough caused by smoking
  • Have been diagnosed with emphysema

Don't use Vicks VapoRub if you've ever had an allergic reaction to any of its ingredients. These include:

  • Camphor
  • Eucalyptus oil
  • Menthol

Don't use Vicks VapoRub on children under the age of 2. Studies have shown that using camphor on small children can cause:

How to Apply Vicks VapoRub

To treat a cough, rub Vicks VapoRub on your chest. Never put it under your nostrils. This is because inhaling petrolatum based products can cause a rare form of pneumonia.

To treat muscle aches, rub Vicks VapoRub directly over the muscle. Don't use Vicks VapoRub internally or in a way other than what the label directs. Do not use on broken skin or burns.

A 2010 study found that Vicks VapoRub was over 98% effective in relieving cough, congestion, and sleep difficulty in children age 2 to 11. It was less effective in relieving a runny nose.

Some people use Vicks VapoRub to treat other conditions like toenail fungus or hemorrhoids. These off-label uses haven't been well studied or approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). They may even be dangerous. For example, camphor and other ingredients could cause problems when absorbed through vulnerable or broken tissue.

Recap

Vicks VapoRub can be helpful for sore muscles, congestion, and cough. Don't apply it under the nose and don't use on children under the age of 2.

Side Effects of Vicks VapoRub

Side effects are uncommon but have happened. Because Vicks VapoRub is applied to the skin, the most likely side effects are:

  • Skin irritations
  • Rash
  • Redness
  • Hives

If you notice these side effects, stop using Vicks VapoRub and call your doctor.

Vicks VapoRub may also cause difficulty breathing, especially in children under the age of two. There have also been isolated cases of respiratory distress and pneumonia. These cases have usually involved elderly adults who overused Vicks VapoRub.

Call 911 or go to the ER if you or your child have any of these symptoms after using Vicks VapoRub:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Dizziness
  • Hives
  • Irregular heartbeat

Summary

Vicks VapoRub is a popular over-the-counter remedy for treating cold symptoms and muscle aches. It should not be used by children under the age of 2. It also should not be applied under the nostrils.

Studies have shown that Vicks VapoRub helps relieve cough, congestion and sore muscles. It hasn't been proven safe or effective for other off-label purposes.

Vicks VapoRub may cause side effects like skin irritation and respiratory distress, but these are rare.

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4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Kilaru H, Prasad S, Radha S, Nallagonda R, Kilaru SC, Nandury EC. Nasal application of petrolatum ointment-a silent cause of exogenous lipoid pneumonia: successfully treated with prednisolone. Respir Med Case Rep. 2017;22:98-100. doi:10.1016/j.rmcr.2017.07.003

  3. Paul IM, Beiler JS, King TS, Clapp ER, Vallati J, Berlin CM. Vapor rub, petrolatum, and no treatment for children with nocturnal cough and cold symptoms. Pediatrics. 2010;126(6):1092-9. doi:10.1542/peds.2010-1601

  4. Cherrez Ojeda I, Calderon JC, Guevara J, et al. Exogenous lipid pneumonia related to long-term use of Vicks VapoRub by an adult patient: a case reportBMC Ear Nose Throat Disord. 2016;16:11. doi:10.1186/s12901-016-0032-6