Vicks VapoRub on the feet

When we first heard about putting Vicks VapoRub on the soles of the feet to calm a cough, we thought it was a little odd. In fact, the nurse who told us about it described this remedy as “wacky.” Nonetheless, over the years we have tried this tactic ourselves and found it helpful. Many other also have written about the benefits of smearing Vicks VapoRub on the feet. One mother recently told us about her natural experiment.

Does Vicks VapoRub on the Feet Really Help a Nighttime Cough?

Q. I have twin daughters who both had bad coughs for over a week. I put Vicks VapoRub on the feet of one, and she slept like a log!

I had run out of Vicks, so I couldn’t treat her sister. That one carried on coughing for another two hours. I headed to our late-night convenience store and bought some more Vicks for the other twin’s feet. Bingo!

I tried this experiment the other way around the following evening, with the same result. The twin who got the Vicks on her feet stopped coughing but the other twin carried on coughing until I finally smeared Vicks on her feet. What a joy to have twins for a sort of controlled experiment!

Why Does Vicks VapoRub on the Feet Quell a Cough?

A. Skeptics find this home remedy ridiculous. They may not understand the role of transient receptor potential (TRP) channels in stimulating sensory nerves. When such channels are activated, they initiate a cascade of impulses that could reach the spinal column. These may suppress the nerve input in the cough center of the brain that triggers a cough.

Nerves in the airways have TRP channels (specifically TRPV1 and TRPA1) that respond to triggers such as capsaicin, the hot stuff in hot peppers (Grace et al, Pulmonary Pharmacology & Therapeutics, Oct. 2013). That’s why a whiff of hot chili peppers will make most people cough. On the other hand, TRPM8 channels appear to counteract the cough reflex (Millqvist, Pharmaceuticals, Sep. 2016).

Vicks VapoRub contains menthol, camphor, eucalyptus oil and thymol, among other ingredients. All of these compounds can activate TRP channels. Menthol specifically triggers TRPM8 (Liu et al, Pain, Oct. 2013), which might help explain why Vicks VapoRub on the feet can help cool a cough.

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  1. Christine Ladas
    South Carolina

    I am a 70 year old woman. Had a severe case of bronchitis recently. Was put on antibiotics for 10 days but cough was relentless. Put Vicks on both feet and not only slept great but voice got better after 2 weeks of doctor care. Will always use this from now on.

  2. Robert
    Fife, Washington

    Vick’s can also help eliminate toenail fungus. I know a few podiatrists who recommend it. I use it on my toenails and it works where other remedies do not.

  3. Penelope

    Another reason Vicks on the soles of the feet may work is because the pores on the bottom of the feet are the largest on the body. Those on the palms are next larges.

  4. Mary

    I had found a small jar of Mentholatum at a local store. I had used it in the past.

    I also have Vicks that is what I usually get. For one thing, I can find it and not the other.

    One day I read the ingredients list for both. Vicks did have one ingredient Mentholatum did not have. Just sniffing I cannot tell the difference.

    I also like to put a little Vicks under my nostrils if my nose is stuffy. It is said putting it inside the nostrils can cause it to travel to the lungs so I am cautious.

  5. Elle

    Vicks on the feet really works, I have used it many times for a bad cough.

  6. Patricia

    I am recovering from a very bad cold and unremitting cough. Vicks at night really worked!

  7. Peggi

    I tried this with my daughter when she was younger – several times. It didn’t work for her; however, very dark chocolate did (≥85%). Also, for me, thyme tea is the hero.

  8. Mary

    You would be very surprise how Vick are used for many other problems. Yes, I believe in Vicks and the use for it.

  9. Cathy
    Ozark Mtns, Arkansas

    I love knowing about the TRP channels, because this explains a lot of other things that go on; but–hey, all the skeptics have to do is try this remedy. Even if you aren’t actually sick you can feel the effect of having a little VVR on your feet at night.

  10. Denise
    South Africa

    I have had 2 Heart valve replacement operations resulting in bad circulation which has caused dry excema on my feet. The skin cracks and bleeds, not on my heels. I had a cough so someone told me to rub Vicks VapoRub on the soles of my feet. I have tried all kinds of expensive creams, prescribed by doctors. Nothing made a difference to my cracked feet. Vicks VapoRub had done the trick. The excema has practically disappeared and I have been using it for less than a month. Needless to say I am thrilled. At long last I can have a pedicure and paint my toenails red.

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