Many health professionals think that using Vicks for coughs is at best an old wives’ tale. This is especially true when we describe the technique. Instead of applying Vicks VapoRub to the chest or neck, people tell us to smear the gooey ointment on the soles of the feet. Within minutes the distinctive smelling grease often calms a recalcitrant cough.
Q. I saw your article about putting Vicks VapoRub on the soles of the feet to stop a nighttime cough. Then I was listening to NPR’s “Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me” radio show. It is often a fun source for the latest wacky science studies.
This week’s show included a story about tasting garlic …with your feet! Scientists associated with the American Chemical Society performed a cool experiment. They reported that if you put a freshly cut clove of garlic in a plastic bag, rub it on the sole of your foot and then tie the plastic bag around your foot you will taste and smell garlic after about an hour.
Could Vicks have a similar compound that can be absorbed through the skin to calm the cough response?
A. We love this experiment. It demonstrates that garlic penetrates the skin and circulates through the blood stream until it eventually reaches the taste buds.
There are two possible ways that menthol and the other herbal ingredients in Vicks VapoRub might be working to calm a cough. One is absorption through the skin into the blood stream, as with the garlic. We would expect that it would take a similar amount of time to exert its effect (at least 30 minutes to an hour).
Most readers report that smearing Vicks on the feet eases a cough within ten minutes. A different mechanism might explain that. Your skin contains nerve endings that react to heat and cold. They do this through TRP channels in nerves that are also sensitive to compounds like menthol and eucalyptol, found in Vicks VapoRub. We suspect that stimulating these TRP receptors sends a message to the cough center at the base of the brain and calms the cough. This nerve effect could explain why Vicks for coughs is such a fast-acting remedy.
Readers Love Vicks for Coughs and Other Maladies:
Frankie in Mannheim, Germany is all in for Vicks for coughs and congestion:
“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.”
Terry B. likes Vicks for muscle cramps:
“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. I remembered the Vicks and it did provide immediate relief.”
A study on Vicks for Coughs:
A study of Vicks VapoRub was conducted by researchers at Penn State College of Medicine several years ago. Over 130 kids with colds were recruited for this trial. They were randomly assigned to receive either Vicks or a placebo rubbed on their chests. Parents couldn’t tell what they were rubbing because they all had a dab of Vicks applied beneath their noses before opening the bottles (Pediatrics, online, Nov. 8, 2010).
The children who got Vicks had less coughing and congestion. They were also able to sleep better than the kids who got petroleum jelly (the control) instead.
DD, A Skeptic, Complains:
“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. Pediatrics is a highly respected journal and requires peer review before publication of any article.
If you do not believe any research funded by pharmaceutical companies can be believed, then there would be no new drugs and few articles published in medical journals. You would have to be willing to pay a lot more in taxes to fund independent research.
We heard from several other skeptics who insist that there is no good research to suggest that this old product does much of anything. Matt was pretty sure of himself: “
“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…”
“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.”
Liz from Epsom, England offers her experience:
“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 would not be 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.”
John B. from the Mid West says:
“I’ve always dreaded getting a cold as the coughing would seem to continue long after the cold and I would suffer from sleepless nights.
“My coughing would get so bad that I would see flashing in my eyes and suffer from more floaters. It became a real worry about 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.”
Want to learn more about treating a cough? Here is a link to our guide to Colds, Coughs & the Flu.
Want to learn more about Vicks for coughs and other conditions? Here is a link to our Guide to Unique Uses for Vicks.