child coughing with the flu or a cold

As we move into the season of coughs, colds and the flu, smart parents will be prepared with a unique cough remedy. Cough remedies containing dextromethorphan may not work well on young children (Smith, Schroeder & Fahey, Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, Nov. 24, 2014). So how can parents calm a child’s cough?

Vicks VapoRub as a Unique Cough Remedy:

Q. Our 5 year old caught a cough that was going around her class. She was miserable with a non-productive cough every half-minute or so. It was torture.

Finally, at midnight, after trying chamomile tea and steaming in the shower, we tried rubbing the soles of her feet with a generic brand similar to Vicks VapoRub. It worked like turning off a spigot.

Awesome remedy! Dark chocolate also helps a cough, but it was so late at night we didn’t want to stimulate her little system with theobromine. Thank you, People’s Pharmacy!

A. Thanks for sharing your story. It seems unorthodox, but other parents also report that Vicks on the soles of the feet helps ease a child’s cough.

We have hundreds of other intriguing uses for common household products in our book from National Geographic, The People’s Pharmacy Quick and Handy Home Remedies. It is available in libraries, bookstores and online.

Other Cough Remedies That Work:


Preliminary research suggests the theobromine in dark chocolate may indeed ease a cough (FASEB Journal, Feb. 1, 2005). A randomized controlled trial of theobromine for persistent cough was inconclusive but promising (Morice et al, Journal of Thoracic Disease, July 2017). You were right to be cautious, though, because some people are susceptible to stimulation from theobromine. A small child might be especially vulnerable.


Another remedy that parents might try with youngsters over a year old is a teaspoon of honey (Oduwole et al, Evidence-Based Child Health, June 2014). It calms a child’s cough about as well as dextromethorphan. Honey’s more pleasant taste might make it more acceptable to kids. An Iranian trial found that honey worked better than diphenhydramine, the active ingredient in Benadryl, for easing children’s coughs (Ayazi et al, PLoS One, Jan. 19, 2017). Remember not to give honey to babies under a year old.

Calming Coughs for the Rest of the Family:

Children are not the only ones who might be bothered with persistent coughing during cold and flu season. Although many people expect that once a cold goes away, the cough will vanish as well, it can take several weeks longer for coughing to disappear completely (Clinical Respiratory Journal, online Oct. 31, 2015).

Frequently such a cough following an upper respiratory infection keeps everyone in the house awake for at least part of the night. This reader tried a home remedy that sounded improbable to her; to her delight, it worked.

Vicks VapoRub on the Soles of the Feet for Coughing:

Q. I have been coughing for five weeks! My body is sore from coughing and I have been completely exhausted by it. Yesterday at work someone told me about putting Vicks VapoRub on the soles of your feet. I thought she couldn’t possibly be right; it was just too wacky to be real.

Last night, though, I gave up on the NyQuil that wasn’t working so well and tried the Vicks on the bottoms of my feet. In fact, my husband rubbed it in while laughing and saying that if it worked he’d get some sleep too!

UNBELIEVABLE! After five weeks of coughing all night, I only coughed once last night after using Vicks. We both got some much-needed rest!

A. We have heard from lots of folks that there is a nasty persistent cough making the rounds that is keeping people awake at night. We can’t explain why Vicks might work, but we have heard from a surprising number of readers that it helps.

Don’t Forget the Socks:

Vicks VapoRub is messy because it contains petrolatum (petroleum jelly). After applying it to the soles of the feet put on thick socks to keep the sheets from getting greasy.

Vicks VapoRub may not work for every cough, so we have included a number of other remedies in our Guide to Colds, Coughs & the Flu. They include thyme or ginger tea, buckwheat honey and dark chocolate. You will also learn about Chinese herbs like Andrographis and Astragalus for colds. And, if you are interested in learning more about Vicks VapoRub, we also have a Guide to Unique Uses to Vicks.

If the Cough Persists:

A cough that lasts for a few weeks after an upper respiratory tract infection probably doesn’t require medical attention. In most cases it will eventually resolve on its own. But if it hangs on for more than a month or six weeks, it may be prudent to consider other possible causes. We have heard from a reader whose chronic cough was the first symptom of lung cancer, so it should not be ignored indefinitely. Another reader reported that her husband’s chronic cough was due to idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis.

There are also medications, specifically the ACE inhibitor and ARB blood pressure medicines, that can trigger a chronic cough. In this case, the only appropriate remedy is a completely different prescription to lower blood pressure. Patients may need to remind their doctors that they are taking blood pressure pills and ask if they are in one of those two categories that can cause unrelenting cough.

Revised 10/26/17

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  1. Lemuel

    When I was young I remember my Mom putting Vic’s on my chest. I always thought it was to open my sinus.

  2. Marie

    Essential oils have been used for thousands of years in Asia to promote good health. Some work through absorption through the skin. Are there oils in Vicks that could explain this healing of cough phenomenon?

  3. S Scaggs

    I also use it to rub on a rash that is iching so badly.

  4. Ellen
    Upstate NY

    I read years ago in People’s Pharmacy that Vick’s Vaporub on the soles of feet diminished effects of the common cold for many people, so I tried it and had virtually instant relief. I have glaucoma so can’t take decongestants. Within seconds of rubbing Vicks on the soles of my feet, all of the cold’s symptoms, not only the cough, were much relieved. A jar of Vicks and a pile of socks have been on my nightstand ever since.

  5. Dushyant M.

    Very useful and awesome remedy… My parents called me insane when I tried this method. But it really proved them wrong and made me recover from that tough and irritating cough disease..
    Thank you very very much… And yeah also try to find the Science behind it….

  6. ck

    My husband, after recovering from pneumonia, had a nonstop dry cough for six days in a row. Every prescriptive medication brought no relief, and we tried many. Desperate for sleep, he agreed to try the Vick’s Vapor Rub on the soles of his feet. It worked immediately and he had the first night of much needed sleep. The next night he coughed for a few hours until he agreed to try it again and he fell asleep after applying the rub to the soles of both feet.
    Not sure of the exact mechanism that causes this to work, but it does work. Since it can’t harm, please consider this. It honestly was a God Send for us. Thank you People’s Pharmacy!

  7. Tracy

    Will the Vick’s & socks work while awake & walking around, or is it just for nighttime/sleeping?

  8. Athan

    Cool beverages can be comforting and it is vital to keep you hydrated. But don’t take soda or orange juice. These can harm a throat that is swollen from coughing.

  9. M.B.L.

    Does this remedy work for adults also, or just children?

  10. rb

    Vicks is pretty amazing stuff. I am over eighty years old and remember my mother slathering vicks on my sister and I when we had a cold. I recently discovered something a little unique. I have had toenail fungus in my big toenails for several years. One of them became a little ingrown and I decided to soften it so I could lift the edge.
    I coated the nail with Vicks and put a bandaid on it for about a month and finally lifted the edge. After about a week, I started to trim the nail. The entire nail lifted off down to the uninfected part and is now growing back with a nice pink color.

  11. Debby D. K.

    Question: Does the application of Vick’s Vapor Rub on soles of feet quell a cough in adults as well as with children?

  12. GB

    Vicks also works wonders for adults with a nagging cough. I recently had a sinus infection that moved into my chest. The days weren’t so bad but at night I would cough so much I couldn’t sleep and nothing seemed to help. Finally I remembered the Vicks VapoRub and rubbed a generous amount on the bottoms of both feet. The relief was immediate! The coughing stopped and I slept through the night. For the next few nights I repeated the process and not only did it stop the coughing, but the congestion disappeared as well.

  13. S.B.O.

    I too have used Vicks Vaporub on my 12 yr old granddaughter when she had a bad cough. I “slathered” it on the bottom of her feet, put a pair of socks on her and off to bed she went and slept thru the night with no coughing.

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