soles of feet poking out from under the covers

Whenever we get a question about putting Vicks on the feet for a nighttime cough we hear from skeptics who insist that this is a placebo effect. Since there are no scientific studies to prove otherwise, we shrug and say that it works for us and a lot of readers of our syndicated newspaper column. Now we have a fascinating “experiment” that suggests it might be more than “suggestibility.”

Q. I had a pretty mild cold about a week ago that turned into a nasty cough. The sore throat, sneezing and congestion disappeared within three days but this darn cough won’t let go. It keeps waking me up at night. Cough medicine doesn’t help. Do you have any remedies that might let me get a decent night’s sleep?

A. A remedy that has a lot of support from readers is Vicks VapoRub smeared on the soles of the feet. Here is just one of many stories we have received:

“I have used Vicks numerous times for my husband and me. It worked but I didn’t know if it was due to a placebo effect (and I didn’t really care, so long as it worked).

“Our nieces were staying with us a few years ago and they both had a nagging cough. One night the older niece was coughing in her sleep. I went in her room, put Vicks on the soles of her feet and put socks on her. She didn’t cough the rest of the night.

“The next night, the younger niece was coughing. I did the same to her and she didn’t cough any more that night either. Neither of the girls knew that I had put the Vicks on their feet so the placebo effect seems unlikely.”

A Semi-Scientific Hypothesis for Vicks on the Feet:

The soles of your feet are loaded with nerves. We hypothesize that the camphor and menthol (and possibly other ingredients in Vicks) stimulate sensory neurons in the feet.

When these nerves are activated they send messages to the spinal cord. We suspect that the cough center, just above the spinal cord, is affected. This might well explain how a cough is calmed so quickly by Vicks on the feet.

You can read much more about Joe’s hypothesis about Why Vicks on the Feet Calms a Cough here:

Can Science Explain Why Vicks on the Feet Calms a Cough?

More Reports from Readers About Vicks on the Feet:

Robin in North Carolina got an added bonus:

“I do this regularly. I apply Vicks on my feet whenever I have a cough. It does work.

“There is another benefit that I receive by doing this. My feet became really soft. I have always had a problem with dryness on the soles of my feet. They would crack and peel, always in the winter months or the middle of the summer.

“I would end up with a horrendous cough from allergies and sinus infections. The Vicks on my feet with socks not only would help with my cough, but it helped the skin on the soles of my feet as well.”

Nam in Westminster, California was a skeptic…until:

“I was trained in medicine and always have a scientist’s mind. I never believed in this.

“About 10 years ago I had a real bad cold and coughed uncontrollably day and night. My wife kept telling me to apply Vicks on the feet at night so we both could sleep. I kept telling her it would not work. Don’t even try it.

“She waited until I felt asleep. She applied Vicks to both of my feet and pulled my socks back on (I knew but because I was so tired, I just let her finish) and I slept like a baby that night.

“In the morning, I thanked her and said I was wrong all along, I thought it never would have worked. I applied another layer of Vicks to both of my feet and went to work. All that day I did not cough at all. I did the same thing the next few nights and days and my cough just never came back.

“I told my colleagues and they were surprised. Some tried this technique themselves and agreed with me. Because of the guidelines, and regulations, physicians can’t tell patients about this remedy but their office employees can.”

You will find more remedies in our Guides to Colds, Coughs and the Flu and Unique Uses for Vicks.

Colds, Coughs & the Flu


Unique Uses for Vicks

Share your Own Vicks VapoRub story in the comment section below.

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  1. Stephanie

    Wondering if Vicks would calm the irritable cough from taking Lisinipril??? Anyone out there try it for that???

  2. carol
    durham nc

    I use Vicks on my entire foot (feet) every night I work. It keeps the skin on my feet soft, combats nail fungus and keeps me from coughing. I’m wondering if it is safe to use Vicks on a constant basis…3 consecutive nights one week and 2 consecutive nights X 2 the next week.

    Would appreciate any information you might have about the safety of regular Vicks applications.

  3. Paul

    I found that I had a night cough because I was allergic to something in my toothpaste. I think it is the teethwhitening chemical. When I changed toothpastes, my cough went away. Then I got another cough and realized that I was allergic to my laundry detergent. After changing that to the white bottle, Tide, I no longer have nighttime coughs.

  4. Judy A

    I’ve been using this remedy and the soap in bed remedy for years! Recommend both to friends and family. Those who try and get results praise these methods, those who don’t try or have first time failures are the losers.

  5. Ginnie Siena Bivona

    I love the idea of the “Placebo Effect”…to me that just proves how powerful our brains really are. And what do I care if it’s “all in my mind” Hey! If it works, and I feel better mission accomplished.

  6. lashika
    san frca,ca

    vicks vaporub it really works for that matter, Im in my seventies but remember my mom used that method on us whenever we got problems with the throat and for other symthoms as well for coughing she will spread it on our chests and upper back so phlegms will soften and eazy to expel,I did the same with my own children and recommend it as a very safe remedy for most of the cold nasty things.

  7. Kathi
    Grayslake, Il

    I get sinus drainage periodically that drips down the back of my throat. During the day I can manage, but at night the tickle in my throat with subsequent coughing won’t let me sleep. Being a nurse, I was skeptical, but this was my last resort. I tried putting Vicks and a sock on one foot. I was asleep within minutes with no further coughing. The second time I tried a few weeks later – same results. I now tell all my friends.

  8. Janet
    North Carolina

    NPR’s “Wait, wait, Don’t tell me” is often a fun source for the latest wacky science studies. This week’s show included one that “Your feet can taste garlic” Could Vicks have a similar compound that acts both Iike oil and water and that can be absorbed through the skin to calm the cough response?

    • Terry Graedon

      Yup. It is called menthol. Check your cough drops and you will probably find they contain menthol, one of the ingredients in Vicks.

  9. Liz
    Epsom, England

    As a trained Reflexologist and Aromatherapist for over 25 years we were told of the Vick cure then by our tutors. They said to be casual about it as the medical profession were not happy about our ‘magic’ tricks. I keep my opinions casual suggesting a cure that could help. The only people who dismiss this are the ones who will not use the ‘stupid’ idea. Ok, that’s their problem, I know it works.

  10. John B
    Mid West

    I’ve always dreaded getting a cold as the coughing would seem to continue long after the cold and I would suffer from sleepless night. My coughing would get so bad that I would see flashing in my eyes and suffer from more floaters. It became a real worry how to stop the coughing to protect my eyes. I had found some things to work but having to get a prescription from the doctor was a pain and there were the side effects too.

    I was lost at what else to do until I finally tried Vicks VapoRub and the problem was solved. Just rubbing it into the soles of my feet before going to sleep was all that was necessary. Long may it continue! I’d recommend everyone to just try it.

  11. c

    Does not matter if it’s a placebo effect or not. It works. Period.

  12. Judy

    I always laugh when I read someone claiming he doesn’t use home remedies because he is a scientist, or just believes in science. How do these people think scientific discoveries happen? Not by turning your eyes away from phenomena you can’t explain and denying they exist. Stories about important discoveries often begin with tales like Alexander Fleming noticing a mold killing bacteria, leading to penicillin, or a Jenner noticing that milkmaids who had had cowpox didn’t get smallpox, leading to vaccination. Science isn’t received truth; that’s religion. Science is discovery.

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