Using Vicks VapoRub to Treat Cough and Muscle Aches

The popular topical remedy is not suitable for everyone

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

It's not safe for everyone, though—especially young children. Some research has found that use in children under age 3 could cause seizures and other serious problems.

This article looks at how Vicks VapoRub works for coughs and muscle aches, how to use it, who shouldn't use it, and what side effects it can cause.

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

How Vicks VapoRub Works

Vicks VapoRub doesn't actually clear congestion. When you breathe in the vapors, they make your nasal passages feel cooler. That makes your brain think you're breathing better. This can quiet the cough response, which is intended to clear excess mucus.

When it comes to pain relief, the camphor and menthol in VapoRub are considered counterirritants. That means they overwhelm your cells' pain receptors so they no longer notice your pain.

The effects are real when it comes to making you feel better, though. Studies have shown that counterirritants are effective in relieving many kinds of pain.

And a 2010 study found that Vicks VapoRub was more than 98% effective in relieving cough, congestion, and sleep difficulty in children ages 2 to 11.

How to Use Vicks VapoRub

To treat a cough, rub Vicks VapoRub on your chest. Don't use more than directed on the label. Never put it in or under your nostrils. Inhaling petrolatum-based products can cause a rare form of pneumonia.

To treat muscle aches, rub Vicks VapoRub directly over the sore muscle. Don't use Vicks VapoRub internally and always follow the direction on the label. Do not apply it to broken skin or burns.

Some people use Vicks VapoRub to treat other conditions like toenail fungus or hemorrhoids. These uses are off-label, meaning they haven't been well studied and are not approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Off-label uses can sometimes be dangerous. For example, camphor and other ingredients could cause problems when absorbed through broken tissue.

Who Shouldn't Use Vicks VapoRub

Children: The manufacturer's website says Vicks VapoRub is "appropriate for ages 2 and up." In some studies, the product has appeared safe for children over 2.

However, a case report on three children between 15 months and 3 years old suggested that camphor can cause:

Because of this conflicting information, be sure to check with your child's healthcare provider before using it on a child between 2 and 3 years old.

Adults: This product is considered safe for older children and most adults. Ask your healthcare provider before using it if you:

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

Allergic Reactions

Don't use Vicks VapoRub if you've ever had an allergic reaction to any of its ingredients. Active (therapeutic) ingredients are:

  • Camphor
  • Eucalyptus oil
  • Menthol

Inactive (non-therapeutic) ingredients include:

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

The manufacturer may change the ingredients at any time. If you have known allergies, be sure to check the label.

Severe Allergic Reactions

Call 911 or go to the ER immediately if you or someone in your care has any of these symptoms after using Vicks VapoRub:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Dizziness
  • Hives
  • Irregular heartbeat

Side Effects of Vicks VapoRub

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

  • Skin irritations
  • Rash
  • Redness/discoloration
  • Hives

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

Vicks VapoRub may also cause difficulty breathing, especially in children under 2.

Isolated cases of respiratory distress and pneumonia have occurred, mostly in elderly people who overused it.

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 2. Use caution in children between 2 and 3. It should never 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 purposes.

Vicks VapoRub may cause side effects like skin irritation and respiratory distress, but these are rare. Do not use it if you're allergic to any of its ingredients.

6 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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By Kristin Hayes, RN
Kristin Hayes, RN, is a registered nurse specializing in ear, nose, and throat disorders for both adults and children.