This cold season, get something off your chest

Back in 1905, a pharmacist in North Carolina began selling a product called Vick’s Magic Croup Salve. It quickly gained popularity, just in time for the devastating 1918-19 influenza epidemic. Although this salve (nor anything else) proved “magic” for the flu, annual sales rapidly grew to nearly $3 million.

Today, Proctor & Gamble owns Vick’s VapoRub. And it remains more popular than ever. Especially for children. Many customers still swear by the product to fight colds, soothe coughs, open stuffy noses, and even help dry feet. They rub it primarily on the chest, under the nose, and on the feet. PG also now makes an electric vaporizer that sprays Vick’s VapoRub mist into the air.

But, as I’ll explain in a moment, recent studies show that this beloved, old-fashioned remedy doesn’t really do what it’s supposed to do. And it may even cause more harm than good.

So, what’s the rub hiding right under our noses?

Vick’s VapoRub and similar products contain camphor and menthol. Both are potent plant oils. Generally, these plant oils are only used externally. You rub them on the skin. Or inhale them as part of aromatherapy.

I always advise caution when using camphor. It’s highly toxic if taken orally. In fact, consuming as little as 5 milliliters of camphor oil can prove a deadly dose to a child. Camphor is also used as an alternative cancer “cure,” especially in Canada. But no clinical research exists to prove its safety or effectiveness.

Menthol (from peppermint) does, in fact, have a number of potential benefits–most notably for the gastro-intestinal tract.

But do camphor and menthol work for colds?

You know I recommend many good, old-fashioned remedies. But no actual scientific evidence backs up the claim that Vicks VapoRub makes it easier to breathe. And it may make it worse.

In fact, according to a study published in the journal Chest, putting Vicks VapoRub directly under the nose instead of rubbing on your chest may actually make it harder to breathe. And in children under 2 years, it can increase mucus production and congestion of the airway.

Dr. Bruce K. Rubin, Chair of the Department of Pediatrics, Virginia Commonwealth School of Medicine led the study. He said tests “showed in the lab that Vick’s VapoRub produced changes consistent with inflammation and increased mucus in animals with pre-existing airway inflammation similar to that seen with a respiratory infection.”

Previous studies showed that menthol might also make it more difficult to breathe. It simply creates a “cooling” sensation that makes it feel like you’re breathing easier. In fact, research shows that Vick’s doesn’t open airway passages. But it does trigger brain receptors that make you believe that your nose is more open and that it’s easier to breathe.

In 1983, the FDA determined that camphor-containing products could not contain more than 11 percent concentration. Vick’s VapoRub contains less than 4.8 percent. And the label clearly states that you should not use it on young children (under 2 years). And you should not place it under the nose.

On its website, P&G also cautions not to use Vick’s by mouth, with tight bandages, in nostrils, on wounds, or on damaged skin. In addition, you shouldn’t use it to treat a chronic cough, asthma, emphysema, or other lung diseases.

Signs of overdose include stomach pain, vomiting, nausea; burning sensation in throat, or mouth; seizures and muscle spasms; thirst; elevated heart rate; restlessness and agitation; loss of consciousness; and difficulty breathing.

Take particular note of that last one.

Fortunately, many natural remedies can help you build a balanced immune system. This will help you prevent colds. And when you do get a cold, you’ll get over it faster with fewer symptoms.

I’ve written quite a bit over the past year about how you can fight off colds using natural remedies. To search my archives, simply type “colds” or “flu” into the search box. You’ll find dozens of articles that will help you stay healthy this fall and winter.

In addition, I will continue to bring you breaking news about safe, natural ways to fight off colds and infections.


1. “Vicks VapoRub induces mucin secretion, decreases ciliary beat frequency, and increases tracheal mucus transport in the ferret trachea,” Chest 2009 Jan;135(1):143-8