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 that is applied to the skin to treat coughs and relieve muscle aches and pain. Both symptoms are frequently caused by the common cold.

There's no evidence that Vicks VapoRub can cure upper respiratory symptoms, but it may help lessen congestion and cough. For the temporary treatment of mild myalgia (muscle aches), it definitely does provide symptomatic relief.

The active ingredients in Vicks VapoRub are camphor, eucalyptus oil, and menthol. The inactive ingredients include cedar leaf oil, nutmeg oil, petrolatum, thymol, and turpentine oil.

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


Most people over the age of 2 can safely use Vicks VapoRub. However, you should consult a healthcare provider before using Vicks VapoRub if you:

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

You should not use Vicks VapoRub if you have ever had an allergic reaction to any of the ingredients in Vicks VapoRub including camphor, eucalyptus oil, or menthol.

Vicks VapoRub should never be used on children under 2. Studies have shown that the application of camphor on children under 3 can cause seizures as well as severe leukocytosis (high white blood cell count) and hyperglycemia (high blood sugar).


To treat a cough, rub Vicks VapoRub on your chest—never under your nostrils. To treat muscle aches, rub Vicks VapoRub directly over the muscle.

Vicks VapoRub should never be used internally or in a manner not directed. Do not use on broken skin or burns.

A 2010 study conducted at Penn State College of Medicine reported that Vicks VapoRub was over 98% effective in relieving cough, congestion, and sleep difficulty in children ages 2 to 11 but less effective in alleviating rhinorrhea (runny nose).

Some people use Vicks VapoRub for unconventional purposes, such as 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 be dangerous, causing excess absorption of camphor and other ingredients through vulnerable or broken tissue.

Side Effects

There are few documented side effects for Vicks VapoRub but some have occurred. Because the medication is topical (applied to the skin) the most likely side effects are skin irritations, rash, redness, or hives.

If you notice these side effects, you should discontinue the medication and call your healthcare provider. There have also been reports that Vicks VapoRub has caused difficulty breathing, especially in children under the age of two.

There have been isolated cases involving elderly adults wherein the overuse of Vicks VapoRub may have been responsible for the development of respiratory distress and pneumonia.

If you or your child experiences difficulty breathing, dizziness, hives, or irregular heartbeat after using Vicks VapoRub, call 911 or go to your nearest emergency room.

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3 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.
  1. Khine H, Weiss D, Graber N, Hoffman RS, Esteban-Cruciani N, Avner JR. A cluster of children with seizures caused by camphor poisoning. Pediatrics. 2009 May;123(5):1269-72. doi:10.1542/peds.2008-2097

  2. 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

  3. Cherrez Ojeda, I., Calderon, J.C., 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