Jar of Vicks VapoRub

Parents with young children are faced with a difficult dilemma. When their youngsters come down with colds, parents want to give something to soothe symptoms. Congestion and a nighttime cough can keep both children and parents awake.

The trouble is, there are no good cough remedies for kids. The cough suppressant dextromethorphan (DM) in so many products has not been found helpful for children (Clinical Pediatrics, Sept. 2006).

So what’s a parent to do? Listening to a child cough all night is distressing. But giving a child ineffective medicine that may have side effects is not the answer.

Perhaps it is time to consider a really old-fashioned remedy. Vicks VapoRub was created more than a century ago in Greensboro, North Carolina. Pharmacist Lunsford Richardson developed a chest salve for his own children containing exotic ingredients he learned about while traveling in France.

The combination of menthol, camphor, eucalyptus oil, cedarleaf oil, nutmeg oil, thymol and turpentine oil was named in honor of his brother-in-law, Dr. Joshua Vick. Families around the world have used Vicks VapoRub to calm coughs and congestion ever since.

Does it work? Until a few weeks ago there was no recent research to demonstrate effectiveness. But investigators at Penn State College of Medicine performed a fascinating study (Pediatrics, online Nov. 8, 2010). Over 130 children with colds were recruited. Each child was randomly assigned to a treatment group: they got Vicks VapoRub, plain petroleum jelly or nothing.

In order to disguise the distinctive aroma of Vicks VapoRub, parents were given Vicks to apply beneath their own noses before opening the unmarked container they were to smear on their child’s chest.

The results were intriguing. Old-fashioned Vicks VapoRub actually did ease cough and congestion. Most strikingly, children treated with Vicks “were significantly more able to sleep than were children randomized to receive petrolatum.” Parents slept better too.

We’re not surprised. Vicks VapoRub has persisted for generations while other patent medicines have fallen by the wayside. We have even heard of an adaptation:

“For years my sister has put Vicks on the soles of her children’s feet. I also did it for my children. It helps for coughs. The main thing is to rub the Vicks in, creating friction and warmth to the bottoms of the feet, put on warm socks and then put them to bed. It is the best medicine there is for little ones who are sick.

“My 18-year-old came to me one day and said, ‘Mom, do my feet for me, please.’ He had a cold, so I rubbed those size 11 feet, and gave him warm socks to put on. He loved my personal touch and I was happy to do it.”

Anyone who would like to learn more about Vicks VapoRub or other ways to treat colds may wish to order our Guides to Colds, Coughs & the Flu and Unique Uses for Vicks.

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  1. Russ

    I am using some Vicks in a jar with a suggested “expiration date” of October 1995. But it looks great, works great, and smells fantastic. Just like new.

    The thing is, it is almost gone, and I can’t stand the new formula. It’s pretty horrid. Is there anywhere I can get the old formula or even a recipe to the old formula?


  2. Sherry K

    The formula was changed and no longer works! To top it off P&G denies changing the formula! Do they think we’re stupid!?

  3. Cheryl Benard

    When did they change the formula to use synthetic camphor instead of real camphor? The smell is very different and quite nasty now.

  4. Terry B.

    A friend with leg cramp problems has been using Vicks on his legs. He has been applying it prior to going to bed as a preventative measure. Claims it works well.

    I rarely have leg cramps, but, I triggered one from sitting in an awkward position for too long. Remembered the Vicks and it did provide immediate relief.

  5. Bill

    About ten years ago I had a bad cold and ended up going to the doctor because it wouldn’t go away. It turned out that I had bronchitis and the doctor gave me antibiotics. A few years later I got bronchitis again……..more antibiotics. The next time I got a cold I remembered Vicks vaporub from my childhood. I rubbed it on my chest for the next few nights. It loosened up my chest congestion and I was able to get better without going to the doctor. I now use it whenever I get a cold and it always clears up the chest congestion and soon my cold (bronchitis) is gone. I should say that when I do get bronchitis I start wheezing. The Vicks rubbed on my chest always clears up the wheezing and allows me to breath normally. I don’t think the health effects of Vicks is due only to breathing it in. The Vicks does seem to produce a heating effect and I think that somehow helps loosen up the congestion.

  6. Linda

    I love Vicks Vapo rub. This product has always worked on my chest congestion. I know this sounds crazy but I still use the product dated 1968 in the cobalt glass. Amazingly, it is still potent. I have tried the newer formula but prefer the original’s fragrance. Do you still make the older formula? L.K.

    • Frankie
      Mannheim, Germany

      I am 71 years old and have used Vicks ALL of my life. It i s a Godsend product for colds, congestion, and even pain. One can analyze this product, study it or whatever, but the FACT still remains: Vicks is a product that has stood the test of time because it WORKED then and it WORKS now. I am never without a jar. There are not many other products that have been around for 100 years which can make this claim.

      Thank you Vicks.

    • Pat

      I, too, miss the great smell of the older version of Vicks Vapor Rub. The newer version smells horrible!

  7. Tracy
    United States

    My Gramma and Mom used Vicks Vapor rub on us every time we started coming down with a cold. They would rub it on our chest, neck and back. Then they would heat up towels and stuff the warm towels under our pajama tops. When the towel started to cool off they would have another warm towel ready. They would repeat the warm towel 6 to 8 times, then leave the last towel on til morning. I swear by this. It would break the congestion up so you could cough the mucus out of the lungs. Helped to control the cough so you could sleep.

  8. DD

    So many people have don’t understand research or clinical studies. There are agencies that skew research, but in reality, data or research methodology is not “skewed.” Clinical studies are the best way of protecting the public and showing what is effective and what is not. I hold much more merit to research, than I do “common sense,” “wives tales,” and “folklore.” If you are having issues with coughing, breathing, etc, I would suggest find treatments that have some true evidence backing them. There are many, many, MANY that are over the counter, and in fact, many that are homeopathic and natural.

  9. Jg

    I really don’t take stalk in so called studies. Anyone can skew the numbers for either or. What I do believe in is common sense! I have used for yrs, my Mother used it, but use it with common sense. It’s not a cure all, but it does work and help.yes, it can cause pneumonia when it’s applied wrong.

  10. DD

    While I wouldn’t go so far as call this bad science, it is highly suspect science. The study in question was funded by the maker of Vicks, and the “scientists” who conducted it are consultants for Vicks. This information is actually listed in the study under “Acknowledgements” as well as in the author descriptions. I don’t know who vets the studies that are addressed on People’s Pharmacy, but I don’t think they were really fully engaged while vetting this one.
    People’s Pharmacy response: The authors are all faculty members at Penn State University College of Medicine in Hershey, PA. It is not unusual for the maker of a pharmaceutical product to fund a study of it.

  11. Matt

    Not true, in a short amount of time, the scientific community has made significant progress. The issue is, if there is no evidence of it working (and in fact, evidence suggesting that it isn’t effective), why waste our time using something. There is evidence that the ingredients within Vicks are effective for nasal congestion when applied topically, but there isn’t sufficient evidence suggestion that it is effective for coughing.

  12. Elizabeth

    If we wait on “experts”to prove everything we will be in our graves before “they” decide what is good for us.
    Vicks or its equivalent store brand which is cheaper, is definitely soothing and the very act of rubbing it onto the chest or feet is comforting to say the least. Do not use in a vaporizer.
    For colds I would say drink warm or hot liquids esp soups, the salty liquid is better than a gargle. Avoid ice cold drinks, and if you can drink black pepper, tamarind and ginger “coffee’ that is these ingredients boiled in water.
    A small dose of pseudoephedrine at bedtime also helps by drying up the post-nasal drip which causes incessant coughing by tickling the throat when asleep.

  13. Matt

    I have never seen any legitimate body of literature suggesting it actually works for coughing and there is no research suggesting that putting it on your feet helps either (in fact, there has been several showing that it does not help). The study in this article isn’t very reliable from the sound of it. Furthermore, a study is merely worthless until it has undergone peer-review.

  14. becky

    That’s only if you use it in a old time hot steam vaporizer…

  15. helen q.

    My son was born with congenital diaphragmatic hernia it was repaired when he was 6 days old he is now 14 months old and also has pulmonary hypertension and hypoplasia lungs. When he gets cold he’s well bad. This is the first time he has stayed out of hospital other times he has had to be admitted for oxygen.
    He is getting stronger, but last night his cough has been that bad I was determined to try anything bless him. I came across this and since putting it on he has coughed twice instead of constantly. I cannot wait til night time to see if my baby is going to get a good nights sleep. He is also on sildenafil domperadone omeprazole for all his other problems and is also peg fed as he can’t swallow properly so this is a cure for me son thank you very much

  16. H Ed Carlson

    I am lost without a jar of Vicks in the medicine chest, I served in the military in Korea kept a jar in my gear and never came down with a cold or flu as others did, rub on my chest. Use it for bug bites. God’s gift to human kind to heal sores or use as poltice-Love it.

  17. DD

    If anything, Vicks has made my little girls cough worse. I have never seen any evidence that it works. It was difficult to convince my wife since that’s what her family did growing up. After many nights over many years (they weren’t sick all the time), it became obvious that it was a wash at best and cause of coughing at worst.

  18. cpmt

    WELL a home remedy in the Mediterranean area for coughing is an onion cut in two. Place it near the person (night stand) and this will stop the coughing. You must open door an windows in the morning to clear the onion smell. BUT IT WORKS!! this will work in an emergency.

  19. LP

    I remember when I was a child with a cold/cough. Mother would rub Vicks on my chest and cover it with a piece of wool. She’d pin the wool to the front of pj’s (probably to keep the Vicks from being rubbed off onto our pj’s) but it works. Golly it helps to breathe. Still using the stuff too after all these years.

  20. SJP

    I firmly believe in using Vicks. It’s safe… don’t have to worry about side effects. My mother always used it in me and I used it on my children and spouse. I always recommended it that our sons use it on their children. I don’t like a lot of the over-the-counter medicines and feel safer using this.

  21. Rita B.

    I have used Vicks for years and continue to do so….it works!

  22. JB

    I am trying to send this again because it didn’t seem to work the first time. I have heard petroleum is bad for us and I wondered if that was true and if there is any in Vicks.
    Also I am trying to find a lotion that does not have parabens as that too should be avoided from what I understand. Udder cream does contain parabens and I wondered if you knew of any other good cream or lotion for dry skin that does not contain parabens. Thanks!

  23. MBD

    This comment is from a friend to whom I sent the original article about Vicks:
    Something about this article didn’t sound right, so I looked up the study. The lead author on the study has been (and probably will continue to be) a paid consultant for Proctor and Gamble – the maker of Vicks. The previous study suggesting that Vicks was worse than useless was much more in-depth, and more rigorous.

  24. Gin

    I’m now 72 years old. The first part of this article took me back to my very early days when there weren’t many remedies for a child’s cold and coughs. Mom would rub our chests with Vicks and hold the covers over our heads for a few minutes. Worked then and works now – I had read on PP about applying Vicks to the bottoms of the feet for a cough. My husband a very bad cold and cough, the prescribed meds didn’t work, I suggested rubbing the sole of his feet with Vicks. I gave his feet a good rubdown and he put on a pair of socks. Voila!!! the cough subsided. Hooray for Vicks.

  25. J.B.

    I heard about Vicks on feet several years ago and immediately tried it on my child, who sometimes coughed so much at night that even the combination of cough suppressant and benedryl (as recommended by our pediatrician) did not help. It worked so well that the Vicks is now the only thing we use if our child gets a cough.
    Of course not having a cough at all is even better, and they have become so rare they are almost non existent since we started using daily vitamin D @ 25 I.U.s per pound of body weight over 14 months ago.
    Parents should not neglect themselves, either. Good sleep means more patience. I use Vicks on my own feet if I get a cold even if I don’t have a cough, because it seems to help w/congestion, too.

  26. A.L.

    I used Vicks for years for colds and nasal congestion. I stopped when I read about a study that showed a significant increase in pneumonia in people using it. Will you please comment on this?

  27. CeliaK

    I am a licensed massage therapist and I have lived by this method of rubbing Vicks VapoRub on chest, throat and under nose since my childhood days. So when the idea of rubbing Vicks on bottom of feet came along several years ago I was certainly open to this and added it to my routine even when feeling a cold coming on. That combined with hot teas to drink on first on my list to fight off a cold and it usually works for me.
    As a massage therapist, I believe in sharing good natural remedies so I keep Vicks in my massage room and rub it on my clients feet as part of my session when they have or have had a cough or cold. I follow with very warm towels wrapped around the feet for a few minutes. It might help with healing and it also gives the feet a soft result.

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