Dangers of vicks vapor rub

The Vicks VapoRub Debate

In 1905, a North Carolina pharmacist began marketing a product called Vick’s Magic Croup Salve. The product, now known as Vicks VapoRub, became wildly popular — sales during the 1918 flu epidemic grew from $900,000 to $2.9 million.

More than 100 years later, some still swear by the product.

“My husband loves Vicks. He rubs it on his chest and under his nose,” reports 37-year-old Shannon Marks, of Mandeville, La. Marks says other family members use it to relieve a cough and even to ease dry feet, but she doesn’t use it on herself or for treating her children’s cold symptoms. “We’ve used the vapors in a humidifier and we’ve bought the plug-ins.”

There’s a reason that some people don’t use Vicks VapoRub on their children: Recently, researchers found that putting Vicks VapoRub under a child’s nose actually makes it harder for the child to breathe.

Vicks VapoRub: Camphor Concerns

The report earlier this year was not the first time that products like Vicks VapoRub that contain camphor have come under scrutiny. Camphor has long been used in combination with menthol in a variety of preparations that are promoted as chest rubs to fight colds by soothing coughing and opening stuffy noses.

However, camphor is also highly toxic: Eating or drinking as little as five milliliters of camphor oil can kill a child.

As a result, in 1983, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration decided that camphor-containing products such as Vicks VapoRub could not contain more than an 11 percent concentration of the substance. Vicks VapoRub contains less than 4.8 percent camphor.

Vicks VapoRub: The Chest Report

Camphor concerns aside, researchers say there is no science to back up the claim that Vicks VapoRub makes it easier to breathe.

In fact, putting Vicks VapoRub directly under the nose, as opposed to rubbing it on the chest, may actually make it harder to breathe, according to results from a study published in the journal Chest. In children under age 2, this could result in an increase in mucus and congestion.

“We showed in the lab that Vicks VapoRub produced changes consistent with inflammation and increased mucus in animals with pre-existing airway inflammation similar to that seen with a respiratory infection,” says Bruce K. Rubin, MD, MBA, chair of the department of pediatrics at Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine in Richmond.

Dr. Rubin and his colleagues tested the effects of Vicks VapoRub after treating a young girl who was brought to the emergency room with breathing problems after having Vicks VapoRub placed under her nose. Rubin said he has heard of similar accounts.

Other studies have shown that menthol, one of the ingredients of Vicks VapoRub, may also make it harder to breathe, despite creating a “cooling” sensation that feels like easier breathing.

“Although does not , it does trigger receptors that make the brain believe that your nose is more open and it is easier to breathe,” says Rubin.

Vicks VapoRub: Vicks’ Instructions

Rubin notes that the labeling on Vicks VapoRub clearly states that it should not be used on young children and should not be placed under the nose.

“Parents should only follow the directions on the label,” Rubin says. Procter & Gamble, the manufacturer “has been very clear in its labeling that VicksVapoRub is never to be used in children under the age of 2 and never placed directly in or beneath the nose of adults or children. is also acting responsibly about educating patients as to when and how to use the product safely.”

On its Web site, Procter & Gamble gives these cautions that specifically say not to use Vicks VapoRub:

  • By mouth
  • With tight bandages
  • In nostrils
  • On wounds or damaged skin

The site also says that you should contact your doctor if you have a cough that lasts more than seven days, produces a lot of phlegm, or is a chronic cough due to asthma, emphysema, or other lung disease. Additionally, the company states that Vicks VapoRub should never be heated before use. If your child eats some of the product, contact Poison Control immediately. Procter & Gamble has a line of products, such as Vicks BabyRub, that are specifically made to be safe for babies over 3 months old and toddlers.

Vicks VapoRub: Signs of Overdose

Although an overdose of Vicks VapoRub is unlikely if you follow the directions and keep it out of the reach of children, it is important to know the signs of an overdose and respond immediately:

  • Stomach pain, vomiting, nausea
  • Burning sensation in the mouth or throat
  • Seizures and perhaps muscles in spasm
  • Being thirsty
  • Speedy pulse
  • Restlessness or agitation
  • Losing consciousness
  • Difficulty breathing

When using Vicks VapoRub, remember to apply it only on the chest, keep it out of children’s reach, and do not use it on children younger than 2 years old.

12 Surprising Uses For Vicks VapoRub

Vicks VapoRub is an age-old mentholated topical cream intended to relieve head, throat, and chest stuffiness. But did you know it can way more than that?

Vicks VapoRub has been around for more than 100 years and is one of the most widely used over-the-counter decongestants. There’s been a lot of buzz over the years about unique and unconventional ways to use this odiferous ointment. You’ll be surprised to learn that Vicks is a supposed treatment for so much more than just a congested chest. Will you give these ideas a shot?

1. Decongest Your Chest

The most common use of Vicks is to decongest your chest and throat area. When applied to the upper chest, it provides excellent relief of cough and congestion symptoms.

2. On Your Tootsies

Applying Vicks on your feet provides nighttime cough relief. Generously rub VapoRub all over your feet and cover them with socks. Within moments your cough will subside — in the morning you’ll wake up hack-free.

3. Achy Breaky Muscles

Vicks relieves sore, overworked muscles. It increases circulation and provides almost instant aid. Use a generous portion and apply it all over the aching area. (Be sure to warn your bedmate as the stench can ensure a nookie-free night.)

4. Get Rid of Nasty Nail Fungus

Rub VapoRub on your toenails if you suspect you have a fungus. Within days, the nail will turn dark — this means the Vicks is killing the fungus. As your toenail grows out, the dark part will grow off and you will have fungus-free feet. Keep applying the ointment over a period of two weeks to fully cleanse nail beds of any remaining bacteria.

5. Stop Your Cat from Scratching

Cats are notorious for scratching every hard surface they get their claws on. To prevent Miss Kitty from ruining your doors, walls, and windows, apply a small amount of VapoRub to these areas. Cats detest the smell and will steer clear. Vicks can also be applied to your arms and legs if your kitty is prone to scratching you.

6. Pet Pee-Pee Deterrent

If your dog or cat is not yet potty trained, put an open bottle of Vicks on the area he or she likes to mark as their territory. The smell will discourage them from lifting their legs and wetting your rug.

7. Headaches Be Gone

Rub a small amount of Vicks VapoRub on your temples and forehead to help relieve headaches. The mentholated scent will release pressure in your head and instantly relieve pain.

8. Humidify Your Sleep

Vicks VapoRub can be used in special types of humidifiers and vaporizers. Ensure your humidifier has an aromatherapy compartment before using. The humidifier will circulate Vicks throughout the air and keep you breathing easy all night long. Or just get the Vicks Warm Steam Humidifier paired with Vicks VapoSteam, a medicated vaporizing liquid.

9. Paper Cuts and Splinters

To prevent infection and speed up healing time, dab a small amount of Vicks on any small cut or splinter.

10. Ticks and Bugs

If you get bitten by a tick, apply Vicks immediately. The strong odor might help get the critter to release itself and stop bugging you.

11. Reek-free Racehorses

Professional racers smother VapoRub under the nostrils of racehorses on race day. The strong stench deters the stallions from the alluring odor of the female pony and keeps them focused on the race.

12. Go Away Mosquitoes

Vicks wards off mosquitoes. Apply small dabs of Vicks VapoRub to your skin and clothes and mosquitoes will steer clear. If you do get bitten, apply Vicks to the area and cover it with a Band-Aid to relieve itching.

According to WebMD, there have been a few complications in children when Vicks is used inappropriately. A few children reacted negatively and ended up hospitalized when Vicks was applied directly under the nose. Though this is extremely rare and only happens to those who are sensitive to Vicks, consumers should use caution when applying it to the face or on young children. There are non-medicated versions made for children, but it’s always best to consult a doctor.

Even though its strong stench may cost me a few friendships, I am definitely stocking up on this little blue smelly bottle. After all, I never know the next time I’ll have a headache or am heading to the racetrack. Check out the assortment of Vicks VapoRub products below, as well as other similar alternatives highly rated by reviewers.

See: 10 Essential Oil Hacks That Will Make Your Life So Much Better

“Dr. Rubin is an established expert in this field, and what they found lends support to looking at this further,” Craven tells WebMD. “By itself, though, this finding isn’t very concerning. If there are harmful effects from Vicks VapoRub, they probably are mild and only seen in certain situations with intense exposure of the airways under conditions where the airways are already compromised.”

WebMD also sought the opinion of Ian M. Paul, MD, director of pediatric clinical research at Penn State University. Paul is an expert in over-the-counter cough and cold medicines and is conducting a study of Vicks VapoRub under an unrestricted grant from Procter & Gamble.

“I am on record as being highly critical of cough and cold medicines … but the case report is “at best incomplete and at worst irresponsible,” Paul tells WebMD. “Those symptoms they present are much more likely to be caused by RSV . This child had the classic symptoms of RSV bronchiolitis.”

David Bernens, a spokesman for Vicks VapoRub maker Procter & Gamble, says the company receives about three adverse-event reports — mostly involving skin irritation — for every million units of Vicks VapoRub sold.

“We take any kind of safety concern very seriously,” Bernens tells WebMD. “We have multiple clinical studies, with more than a thousand children age 1 month to 12 years old, that have demonstrated both the safety and efficacy of the Vicks VapoRub product. So we have come to different conclusions than Dr. Rubin.”


Camphor is a highly toxic compound, which may be fatal for infants and children on ingestion even in very small quantities. Camphor is a colorless substance available in solid and liquid forms. Volatile liquid form is the active ingredient of the commercially available topical nasal decongestants and cough suppressants. Camphor is commonly used in the Indian household for its fragrance and is available in the form of small cubes. The US-Food and Drug Administration has restricted the camphor content in camphor-containing products to <11%; however, in India, the concentration is not regulated. The neurotoxic dose of camphor is >50 mg/kg body weight. Fatal dose is reported to be 500 mg/kg body weight.
The most commonly reported systemic manifestation of camphor toxicity is seizures. They manifest as new-onset seizures in a previously nonepileptic child which may progress to status epilepticus. Camphor is reported to rarely cause diffuse demyelination of brain.
Camphor is rapidly absorbed from the gastrointestinal tract with a rapid onset of action of toxic effects within 5–20 min and a peak effect at 90 min (supported only by animal studies).
Dermal absorption of camphor is less marked compared to systemic ingestion. Dermal effects of camphor in the event of dermal absorption include erythema, dryness, and irritation.
Clinical features of camphor ingestion include strong smell from the breath, oropharyngeal irritation, nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain. Agitation and seizures may be the first sign of exposure and most remarkable too. Other features include altered sensorium, myoclonus, lethargy, and coma.
Indication for emergent management and admission to ICU include patients with signs and symptoms of camphor toxicity, patients who have ingested more than 30 mg/kg body weight, patients who are suicidal, and patients with significant occupational exposure.
Management of camphor toxicity must begin by stabilizing the airway, continuous monitoring of heart rate, respiratory rate, and pulse oximetry, followed by decontamination of skin using soap and lukewarm water. Camphor is rapidly absorbed from the stomach, and hence, activated charcoal has little or no role in the management of camphor ingestion.
Seizures caused by camphor poisoning occur mostly soon after ingestion maximally before first 2 h. Seizures must be treated with short-acting benzodiazepines, preferred agents being intravenous midazolam and lorazepam, and repeat doses may be administered if necessary. For uncontrolled seizures, a second anticonvulsant may be administered such as phenobarbital or phenytoin. Refractory seizures may require additional drugs such as continuous infusions of midazolam and propofol. Children require ICU admission and observation for a minimum of 2 days in the event of seizure.
Activated charcoal has little or no role in toxic ingestion of camphor as it is rapidly absorbed in the gastrointestinal mucosa. Hemodialysis may be the last resort in case of severe renal impairment or severe toxicity.
Seizure recurrences are extremely rare after initial recovery, and prophylactic anticonvulsants are rarely indicated.
Disposition criteria for asymptomatic patients include an observation period of minimum 6 h, and the patient can be discharged if he/she remains asymptomatic after 6 h.


Camphor toxicity is a rare and preventable cause of acute symptomatic seizures. Because of its easy availability, clinicians must think of camphor ingestions in new-onset seizures after ruling out common causes.
Declaration of patient consent
The authors certify that they have obtained all appropriate patient consent forms. In the form the patient(s) has/have given his/her/their consent for his/her/their images and other clinical information to be reported in the journal. The patients understand that their names and initials will not be published and due efforts will be made to conceal their identity, but anonymity cannot be guaranteed.
Financial support and sponsorship
Conflicts of interest
There are no conflicts of interest.

Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None


DOI: 10.4103/JETS.JETS_21_18

Vicks VapoRub: An effective nasal decongestant?

Medically reviewed by Drugs.com. Last updated on Oct 17, 2019.

Vicks VapoRub — a topical ointment made of ingredients including camphor, eucalyptus oil and menthol that you rub on your throat and chest — doesn’t relieve nasal congestion. But the strong menthol odor of VapoRub may trick your brain, so you feel like you’re breathing through an unclogged nose. By contrast, decongestant tablets and nasal sprays sold over-the-counter may narrow blood vessels in your nose’s lining, leading to reduced swelling in your nasal passages.

VapoRub has drawbacks in addition to its ineffectiveness as a nasal decongestant. It’s unsafe for any use in children under 2 years old. In adults and children age 2 and older, use it only on the neck and chest.

Swallowing a few teaspoons of camphor — one of the main ingredients in VapoRub and other topical medications, such as Campho-Phenique and Bengay — can cause deadly poisoning in toddlers. Topical camphor absorbed through mucous membranes or broken skin also can be toxic. That’s why you should never put VapoRub in or around the nostrils — especially a small child’s nostrils. And if VapoRub gets in your eye, it can injure your cornea.

Why You Should Keep Vicks Out Of Your Nose

Q. You recently told readers not to put Vicks VapoRub in the nose. You suggested that camphor, an ingredient in Vicks, might be the problem.

As a pulmonary physician, I can explain the real reason there is a warning against putting Vicks VapoRub in the nostrils. It is not the camphor, but the petrolatum. Petroleum jelly or mineral oil can cause a chronic form of pneumonia when aspirated into the lungs.

Most people inhale minute quantities of their nasal secretions, especially during sleep. Over time, the oil components of VapoRub or petroleum jelly can’t be cleared from the lungs. This can lead to cough, shortness of breath and reduced lung capacity.

There are no effective treatment options for this type of pneumonia, so it is never advisable to place any oil-containing substances into the nostrils. Saline nasal spray is a much safer option for keeping the nostrils moist.

A. Thank you for explaining this hazard. Some people put a dab of petroleum jelly in the nose at night to combat dryness. Based on your explanation, this would be a mistake if done regularly.

Q. I have a delicate problem–excessive perspiration. I work in an office and I sweat right through my t-shirt and dress shirt, leaving embarrassing stains under my arms that go halfway down my side.

I can’t count the number of different deodorants I’ve tried, and no matter the claims, they don’t help. I end up with yellow stains that don’t wash out on my t-shirts (and even some dress shirts). I just end up throwing the shirts away.

I’ve heard that there is an injection you can get from a doctor that stops the glands under the arms from working. Can you tell me about this treatment or offer a less drastic alternative?

A. The treatment is called Botox. The injection supplies a controlled dose of purified botulinum toxin A. A recent study presented at the American Academy of Dermatology showed that armpit injections stopped excessive sweating in 75 percent of patients. While the benefits last several months, they are not permanent and the cost is not trivial ($1000 or more).

A low-tech approach might be a prescription-strength antiperspirant containing aluminum chloride, such as Drysol or Xerac AC. To reduce staining from the antiperspirant, apply it only at night on dry skin.

Q. My cholesterol has always ranged around 200, with high HDL and good ratios. Last June my doctor said that was no longer good enough and put me on Zocor.

My cholesterol has dropped to 145 and I am wondering if that is too low. My mother died of a massive stroke and my father of a cerebral hemorrhage. I have no other health problems. Is this ultra-low cholesterol a risk for me?

A. Very low cholesterol may increase a person’s risk of bleeding stroke, which is what killed your father. We urge you to talk this over with your doctor.

To help you prepare for this discussion, we are sending you our Guides to Heart Health and Cholesterol-Lowering Drugs, which discuss the importance of good HDL and the hazards associated with very low cholesterol. Anyone who would like copies, please send $3 in check or money order with a long (no. 10) stamped (60 cents), self-addressed envelope: Graedons’ People’s Pharmacy, No. CL-75, P. O. Box 52027, Durham, NC 27717-2027.

The Healthy Skeptic: Menthol ointments appear to pass the smell test

Some smells are strong enough to break through even the stuffiest noses. You can have the cold of the century, but you’ll still be able to sense a splash of Pine-Sol or a ball of wasabi. And no matter how clogged up you are, you can pick up the unmistakable scent of menthol. It feels soothing and oddly cool, almost like a nasal injection of Freon.

Now that the cold and flu season has arrived, the smell of menthol is wafting through many homes. In a ritual that goes back more than a century, stuffed-up kids and adults are going to sleep with gobs of menthol ointments smeared over their chests. If all goes according to plan, the fumes from the ointment will seep into the nose and lungs to ease coughs and congestion.

The most famous and widely used menthol ointment is Vicks VapoRub, a product from Cincinnati-based Procter & Gamble that goes back more than 100 years. In addition to menthol, VapoRub contains camphor and eucalyptus oil, two other highly aromatic compounds. It comes in both regular and lemon varieties and is sold in a range of sizes. You can expect to pay about $10 for a 6-ounce jar or about $4 for 1.76 ounces.

Users are instructed to rub a “thick layer” of the ointment on the chest and throat up to three times per day. According to the label, VapoRub shouldn’t be used by children younger than 2 and shouldn’t be smeared directly in the nostrils.


Another popular option is Mentholatum Ointment, a rub containing a blend of menthol and camphor that has been in use since the McKinley administration at the turn of the last century. Users are instructed to apply the rub on “affected areas” up to three or four times a day. According to the directions, parents should ask a doctor before using the product on a child younger than 2. You can expect to pay about $5 for a 3-ounce jar.

The claims

The website for Vicks VapoRub greets visitors by saying, “We’d like to apologize for just how effective VapoRub can be” (but doesn’t explain why anyone would be seeking an apology in the first place). According to the site, VapoRub is a cough suppressant that works for both children and adults. Many people believe VapoRub helps clear up congestion, and the company used to advertise it as a remedy for stuffy noses. But the current site doesn’t say anything about either noses or congestion.

Representatives of Procter & Gamble were unavailable for comment.


The Mentholatum website says that its ointment “offers relief from cold symptoms such as stuffy noses, chest congestion, sinus congestion and muscular aches.” According to the label, however, it’s a “topical analgesic rub,” not a decongestant. Jennifer Hamberger, director of brand communication for the Mentholatum Co. in Orchard Park, N.Y., says that labeling for the product has changed over the decades in step with federal regulations.

Hamberger adds that the ointment has a strong psychological effect. As she explains, just one whiff reminds people of a doting parent nursing them through a long-ago cold.

The bottom line

Although they no longer say so on their packaging, menthol ointments really do seem to help clear up stuffy noses and chests, says Dr. Ian Paul, a professor of pediatrics and public health sciences at Penn State Hershey College of Medicine. Paul decided to take a closer look at Vicks VapoRub after many parents asked if it would help their children breathe easier. “I told them there was no data,” he says, which wasn’t an especially satisfying answer for anyone. “I decided to do the study myself. I didn’t think it was going to work.”

Paul led a study of 138 children ages 2 to 11 with upper respiratory tract infections. The study, published last year in the journal Pediatrics, found that a single application of Vicks VapoRub at bedtime provided more relief than a plain Vaseline-like ointment or no treatment at all. Specifically, kids treated with VapoRub slept better and coughed less through the night. On the downside, 28% of parents in the VapoRub group said their children complained of a burning sensation in the skin, a complaint that never came up with the other two groups.

“I had never touched the stuff before,” Paul says. “But after I saw the results, I used it on my 3-year-old daughter, and I’ve tried it myself.” Paul was a paid consultant for Procter & Gamble at the time of the study, and the company continues to support his research.

As Paul explains, menthol vapors activate receptors in the nose that send a cooling signal to the brain. This blast of “fresh air” makes it feel like the airways are a little more open, Paul says. It’s unclear if the passages really open up or let in any extra air, he adds, but the mere sensation of better breathing could be enough to help a person relax, cough less and sleep more easily.

Menthol ointments made headlines in 2009 when Dr. Bruce Rubin, now chair of pediatrics at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, published a case report of an 18-month-old girl who had been admitted to an emergency room with severe breathing difficulties after her grandparents rubbed Vicks VapoRub right beneath her nostrils. The girl recovered quickly, but Rubin says that he has since learned of 25 or 30 similar cases involving young children that underscore the potential danger.


Rubin says that Vicks VapoRub and similar products can definitely help relieve clogged-up airways and generally make cold sufferers feel more comfortable. But he stresses the importance of heeding the warnings of the label: Don’t use it on children younger than 2, and don’t apply it directly in or under the nostrils.

Curious about a consumer health product? Send an email to [email protected]

Read more at latimes.com/skeptic.

Vicks VapoRub FAQ

Q: What does Vicks VapoRub do?

A: Vicks VapoRub temporarily relieves cough due to minor throat and bronchial irritation associated with the common cold. It can also be used to temporarily relieve minor aches and pains on muscles and joints.

Q: How does Vicks VapoRub work?

A: Vicks VapoRub contains medicated vapors that enter the nose and mouth to help soothe a cough.

Q: What is Vicks VapoRub?

A: Vicks VapoRub—the #1-selling branded children’s cough cold product* appropriate for children ages two and up—is a topical cough medicine with medicated vapors. It starts working super quickly for adults, as well, to relieve cough symptoms. Vicks VapoRub may also be applied to muscles and joints to temporarily relieve minor aches and pains.

*P&G calculation based in part on value sales data reported by The Nielsen Company through its Retail Scantrack Services in the US market to which P&G subscribes for the Respiratory Care Category for the 52 week period ending 05/23/15.

Q: How do I use Vicks VapoRub?

A: For cough suppression, rub a thick layer of Vicks VapoRub on your chest and throat. Cover with a warm, dry cloth if desired. Keep clothing around your throat and chest loose to allow the vapors to reach the nose and mouth. For muscle and joint pain, rub Vicks VapoRub onto the affected area no more than three to four times daily.

Q: What ingredients are in Vicks VapoRub?

A: The active ingredients in Vicks VapoRub are camphor (a cough suppressant and topical analgesic), eucalyptus oil (a cough suppressant) and menthol (a cough suppressant and topical analgesic). The inactive ingredients in Vicks VapoRub include cedarleaf oil, nutmeg oil, petrolatum, thymol and turpentine oil.

Q: How often can I use Vicks VapoRub?

A: For cough suppression, Vicks VapoRub may be used up to three times daily. Simply rub a thick layer on your chest and throat. For muscle/joint minor aches and pains, Vicks VapoRub may be applied to the affected area no more than three to four times daily.

Q: Can Vicks VapoRub be used on babies?

A: No. Vicks VapoRub should only be used on children ages two years and up. Vicks BabyRub may be used on babies three months and up.

Q: Does Vicks VapoRub expire?

A: Yes. Do not use Vicks VapoRub beyond the expiration date on the package.

Q: Can I heat Vicks VapoRub?

A: You should not heat or microwave the product. Do not add Vicks VapoRub to hot water or any container where heating water. Doing so may cause splattering and result in burns.

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