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…”

Judy disagrees:

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.

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.

Unique Uses for Vicks

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  1. robert m

    I wonder about the intelligence of those who dismiss out of hand anything not scientifically proven. Just think a minute, what did people do before scientists and big pharma? Did they just suffer and die when they got sick? No. Why do so many other countries use natural cures, spices, herbs etc. are they just fooling themselves and their countrymen? I think not.
    Before commenting on what I have said, think about what I have said without reading into it things that are not there. Do not put words into my mouth.

  2. Susan

    I was in the hospital for 3 weeks post surgery for colon cancer. Needless to say, it was very painful to cough! I had my husband bring my Vicks from home and ask the nurses to put it on the soles of my feet. They witnessed first hand how well it worked and couldn’t wait to try it on kids, grandkids…etc

    I also suffer from very dry nasal passages as soon as the heat comes on in the winter. My relief comes from putting a smear of Vicks underneath my nose at night before bed. I also keep a spray bottle of water beside my bed. Anytime I get up during the night, I spray the room with my water. I have found this to work better than a humidifier, which I found very difficult to keep clean.

  3. diane
    Baileys Harbor, Wisconsin

    I recently broke my ankle and found that massaging Vicks on the area gave relief from pain. I also use Vicks for a sore muscle anywhere on my body and again there is relief from discomfort/pain. I would not want to ever be without a jar of this wonderful concoction.

  4. Patricia
    danvillle va

    I have been using the Vick’s for cough’s for several years. Now I have my eight and nine year old grandchildren using it. It also works for feet and leg cramps.

  5. Cheri

    The active ingredient in Vicks is eucalyptus essential oil. Anyone who has studied essential plant oils and used them can tell you, eucalyptus is a potent oil. If you put a few drops into a pot or bowl of hot water, put a towel over your head and the bowl, your congestion will be relieved. Just one of many ways to use it which I have tried and can promise will be effective.

  6. Dianne

    I found to my dismay that alcohol is also absorbed through the soles of the feet. When I was taking a medicine that conflicted with alcohol ( I don’t usually drink it, anyway) I rubbed a liniment on my feet and had a very unpleasant reaction!

  7. Marguerite

    I have never tried it but believe it can work. I believe there is a social and medical bias to discredit any treatment that is not in the form of a pill or other type of medication. Because of this bias, we are losing out on many potential therapies. Alternative medicine; however has proved the usefulness of many items that would not have been otherwise used.

  8. Jeannie

    I have used Vicks vapor rub on my son as a baby and continue using it on my self as recently as this past week. Suffered from head/sinus cold and the pharmacist recommended Vicks (had been using a substitute) on my chest and bridge of my nose. Will try rubbing it on my feet tonight before going to bed. It’s been around four years and I am happy to say that I will continue using Vicks. He’s an old stand by.

  9. Stephanie
    San Diego

    How I wish that the Vicks worked for me! I had an intolerable cold and cough and tried the remedy, and it just did not work! My guess is that I will try it again.

  10. Relleps

    If it works,use it-if it doesn’t, don’t-It works for me-I don’t need someone or some organization who stands to lose money or credibility to interfere in my health or well being! Many Thanks.

  11. judy

    “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.”

    Garlic odor is very hard to contain in plastic. I cannot help but wonder if the odor from the garlic filling the air around the experimenters is what they’re smelling.

  12. Marie

    I heard this year’s ago on People’s Pharmacy. I was skeptical, but one man who recommended it was a business man who travelled internationally. He was in Sweden, I think, and said he had a bad cough and needed to speak at a conference or meeting the following day. Someone from the country he was visiting suggested the “Vicks on the feet” remedy. He also was skeptical, but decided to try it. He said it worked well. He slept without coughing and was able to give the talk the following day. I thought, if International traveling business men say it works, I can certainly try it. I found that it works very well at stopping the cough at the end of a cold that probably persists because the airway tissue is irritated. I have found that it allows you to cough at the earlier stages of a respiratory illness when you have secretions that you need to bring up.
    PS I miss terribly the loss of the People’s Pharmacy on Saturday mornings from Chapel Hill, NC (91.5)!

  13. DJ

    Another product that has ingredients similar to Vick’s, and is effective when used to treat many similar problems is Rawleigh’s Medicated Ointment. While my brothers and I were growing up on the farm our Mother used it religiously on us when we had ailments such as a bad cold, sore throat, sinusitis, and most anything that caused us to have an elevated temperature. If the problem was in our chest she would attach a piece of flannel to the inside of our pajamas, over the chest and as much of the throat as possible. It felt pretty bad (scratchy) but seemed to be a critical element of the cure for the problem.

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