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Vicks VapoRub: Danger That's Right Under Your Kid's Nose?

By January 24, 2009

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So, if you're a crazy label reader like myself, you know that you're not supposed to put Vicks VapoRub under your nose. And you're definitely not supposed to put it under your baby's or toddler's nose. The VapoRub version of the product says not to use it on kids this young -- period -- and the BabyRub version specifically states not to use it in the nostrils.

That never stopped my mom, though. The smell of VapoRub brings back all kinds of strange memories for me. Chicken soup. Missing school. All my siblings avoiding me like, well, the plague. Luckily, I didn't ever go into respiratory distress after my many VapoRub mustaches, but it could happen to some babies or toddlers according to a new study published in the journal Chest. A Reuters report quotes one of the researchers, Dr. Bruce Rubin, as saying:

"The ingredients in Vicks can be irritants, causing the body to produce more mucus to protect the airway. And since infants and young children have airways that are much narrower than those of an adult, any increase in mucus or swelling can narrow them severely."

What caught my eye about this isn't so much that the ingredients can be irritants, but rather that what these ingredients do is produce more mucus to protect the airway. Isn't that kind of making the situation worse? If my child has more mucus, isn't he likely to be coughing more and be even more miserable? Hmmm... There's another interesting report out there where a reader wrote in to the Chicago Tribune puzzled after seeing a commercial with a baby getting its feet rubbed with some Vicks. It confirms my above suspicion with more from Dr. Rubin's study:

"Rubin's research shows that the menthol in Vicks may trick a patient into feeling more comfortable when it's applied as intended on the chest, throat or back. But it does nothing to improve breathing."

Not cool. Although, Vicks very carefully never claims that BabyRub (which is what that commercial was advertising) will help your baby breathe better. They never say that it will clear mucus or act as a decongestant. They never say that it will relieve your baby's cough. They just say that if you rub it on your baby, it will help him relax. You can do this with any lotion (or no lotion at all) so why buy the Vicks? Probably because after 100 years on the market and after your mom slathered it on you as a kid, you've made the association between VapoRub and the cold. By the way, the BabyRub version doesn't contain all of the same ingredients as VapoRub and it was VapoRub used in the study.

Another thought I've been having about this is related to a recall back in 2006 of the Triaminic Vapor Patch. (A lot of parents and others weren't too happy about this if the 20+ comments on that post are any indication.) They were recalled because the patch "contains camphor, eucalyptus oil and menthol. The reported adverse events associated with swallowing products containing camphor or eucalyptus oils can vary from minor symptoms, such as burning sensation in the mouth, headache, nausea and vomiting, to more severe reactions, such as seizures."

These patches were labeled "not for use" in kids under 2 years of age much like VapoRub and they contain the same ingredients as Vicks VapoRub. Actually, VapoRub contains even more stuff than the patches did (stuff like turpentine oil, nutmeg oil and cedarleaf oil), but according to a company statement, they've never had any problems (like those reported with the patches) when used as directed.

Also related, when I saw this hack last year (put VapoRub on a panty liner and place under your child's sheet) I considered that it might be a good solution for those missing the recalled patches. Probably not such a good idea, however. And this definitely falls in the category of "not according to package directions."

Bottom line: VapoRub is for big kids. BabyRub probably won't help or harm your baby with a cold, either way. For something truly effective and free of possibly harmful ingredients, try these natural remedies instead.

January 25, 2009 at 11:57 am
(1) Stephanie Marshall says:

I was just wondering if putting Vicks Vapor Rub under the nose of an adult can have the same if not more serious effects? I am 25 years old and I have been having some respiratory problem after being sick with bronchitis. While sick I used Vicks on my chest but my Granny said it would work better putting it under my nose so I did. I did this for a week and now I’m having respiratory problems. Could that be the cause?

January 25, 2009 at 2:24 pm
(2) babyparenting says:


I mean, what makes sense to me is that if Vicks makes you produce even more mucus, then that’s a problem. Call me crazy. I am not a doctor or anything, but I am a mother with asthma with a child with asthma and so I’ve spent a good part of my life trying to avoid excess mucus. It doesn’t lead to anything good in my house. :)

I’m thinking if you put it on at night and then you’ve got all that mucus running down your throat and possibly into your lungs, the potential for developing chest problems is there and possibly even on top of any other respiratory issues you might be having due to the ingredients. Even if every individual doesn’t have a problem with that amount of camphor, an individual who is more sensitive might. And if you already have bronchitis or something else chest-related, then it also makes sense that Vicks could irritate that further.

And you know, no offense to Granny, I know she means well (as do I), but you should talk to your doctor about it.

January 25, 2009 at 8:08 pm
(3) Gina says:

I like this article, but I for one am a Vicks fan, as well as a Baby Rub fan. It does seem as though the coughing stops and you do feel better to sleep. But now I know never to put it under the nose. Thanks!

January 28, 2009 at 5:24 pm
(4) Linda says:

I am a fan of Vapor rub, having grown up with this some 50+ years ago!
My Mom would put a thin layer on our chest 1st,then the Vapor rub on top of that. What a difference that made to us kids in breathing & getting rid of our colds!…………
When I have cold or am congested, I have been putting Vicks on the bottom of my feet before bed, then putting socks on & I sleep all night…….
Vapo rub will leave blisters under the nose if you put too much on. Try opening the jar, & putting it near your bed at night too. The vapors go along way.

January 28, 2009 at 6:02 pm
(5) amanda salmon says:

wow, thats crazy! well that was pretty timely info. i co-sleep and am just getting over a NASTY cold. i loaded my neck, chest and shoulders with vicks before sleeping. my husband mentioned how it wasnt for babies, but i figured it would be good for her to smell it off of me while we slept (as she is the one who gave me the cold and i couldnt be bothered to go find the babyrub version).
that being said, i will not do that again! i dont know if it does help, but it certainly feels like its helping. i’ll check out the natural remedies so i have an alternative solution. yikes.

February 4, 2009 at 6:01 pm
(6) Carrie says:

No way!! How eye-opening! Granted, I never really felt the effects of Vicks when I was sick (even the vaporizer that is heated with the stuff does nothing for me)…but with that being said, it really helps my 4 year old daughter’s cough. She has a form of asthma (infectious) and so when she gets sick…things always go to hell for her. This does help control it..that I will say about it!

December 9, 2009 at 7:17 pm
(7) Ian says:

The relaxing effect of Vaporub really IS more than just the rubbing and that it’s a petroleum “lotion” -A study published in the JIMR “concluded that Vaporub is effective in decreasing restlessness in children suffering from acute bronchitis. This effect is quite marked and cannot be due solely to psychological effects of the rub therapy, or to effects of petrolatum without aromatics”. But of course this is not for children under the age of 2 – as per the product instructions.

January 6, 2010 at 12:44 am
(8) Cc says:

That’s really interesting… At the moment it’s under my nose but I never seemed to find it to work for me when I’m sick i simply use it because my nose and upper lip gets raw from sneezing and ever since I was little my mother told me to put it on before I went to bed if I had a raw nose. I wake up and it’s not raw and painful anymore.

October 27, 2010 at 6:30 am
(9) Michelle says:

I have just spent a night in hospital with my 4 year old with ‘asthma’ symptoms though no prior respiratory illness. The night before i put vicks on his chest for the first time (had used baby rub) and he woke coughing worse in middle of night. He was complaining of sore mouth and sore tummy. By lunch the next day he was experiencing respiratory distress and GP called ambulance. OMG it was the vicks! It is the only ‘new’ thing that could have triggered this – dust/house/bed/exercise/pet/dad smoker same as always. This article definately has some truth – abandon vicks mums!

November 2, 2010 at 9:56 am
(10) Brandon says:

I use it on my 2 year old. However, i never put it under his nose. I just rub a little bit on his chest.

January 25, 2011 at 11:35 pm
(11) Dre says:

Thank you very much – loved loved loved the article – as I was contemplating using the Baby Rub under my Toddlers nose and said “let me do some research”. NOT – you’re awesome; thanks.

February 17, 2011 at 9:23 pm
(12) Tacey says:

I’ve just had my own ‘aha’ moment after trying desperately to figure out why my son’s cough was worsening at certain periods…Last night, (of course AFTER putting vicks in a humidifier and on his chest) we spent the night in ER with ‘bronchitis’ like-asthma-like symptoms…his chest xrays were clear, he wasn’t responding to the Dr.’s treatment, and they basically said it was likely a viral form of bronchitis which was causing spasms in his airway, thus producing the absoluely, near frightening, contstant coughing. It was only tonight, day 5 of this nightmare, that I put 2 and 2 together…My son (nearly 4) was ‘okay’ most of the day, then after an afternoon hottub, I rubbed Vicks on his chest and then bam….he developed a fever and his behaviour changed drastically from the little boy singing in the hottub only hours earlier…it may be that he is sensitive to this, but now, after steriods, and 2 trips to the Dr’s one trip to the ER I have figured it out…I immediately washed it all off him, and even doing that has made a difference…

Dear Lord..I’m so glad I figured this out…

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