Using Vicks VapoRub to Treat Cough and Muscle Aches

The popular topical remedy is not suitable for everyone

Vicks Vaporub

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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 is no evidence that Vicks VapoRub can cure upper respiratory symptoms, although 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.

Indications

Most people over the age of 2 can safely use Vicks VapoRub. However, you should consult a doctor before using Vicks VapoRub if you are pregnant or breastfeeding, if you have a chronic cough caused by smoking, or if you 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).

Application

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).

There are other unconventional uses of Vicks VapoRub, including using it as a remedy for toenail fungus and hemorrhoids. These off-label uses have not been well studied or approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). They may also be dangerous, allowing the 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 doctor. 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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Article Sources

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  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