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

Many health professionals doubt that Vicks on the feet could stop a cough. What if there IS a scientific explanation they never considered for this effect?
Can Science Explain Why Vicks on the Feet Calms a Cough?

Around the year 2000 a nurse called into our syndicated radio show to tell us that she calmed nighttime coughs by applying Vicks VapoRub to the soles of her children’s feet. She then put socks on the kids to protect the bed sheets. She admitted that it sounded “wacky,” but she assured us that it worked for her and everyone she told about this cough remedy.

We have been writing about this remedy in our syndicated newspaper column or on this website for more than 15 years, and we are always amazed at the positive responses we receive. By now there are hundreds of reports of success. Here is a link to just one such article:

Vicks on the Soles of Your Feet Is Better Than Diamonds on the Soles of Your Shoes

The Skeptics Suggest Vicks on the Feet is Quackery:

Not surprisingly, online websites that seek to discredit home remedies and “rumors” have been quite negative about Vicks on the feet for cough control. One site labeled labeled this remedy a “whole load of nonsense.” The pharmacist who wrote this considers himself a skeptic fighting “the good fight against pseudoscience and quackery.”

The doubters offer the reasonable argument that there is no evidence to support the use of Vicks on the feet: nothing, nada, zip, bupkus! They are totally right. As far as we can tell, there has never been a double-blind, placebo-controlled trial of Vicks VapoRub smeared on the feet to treat cough symptoms. The manufacturer of Vicks seems content to sell the product without any changes to the labeling:

Vicks VapoRub Package Information:

OVERVIEW:

  • “Adults and children 2 years and over:
  • “For cough suppression
  • “Rub a thick layer on throat and chest
  • “Cover with a warm, dry cloth if desired
  • “Keep clothing loose about throat and chest to help vapors reach the nose and mouth
  • “Use up to three times daily or as directed by doctor”

A Novel Explanation for How Vicks on the Feet Could Work:

As a pharmacologist, I (Joe) have had a hard time explaining how this old-timey remedy could possibly work when applied to the soles of the feet. I was thinking like a pharmacologist, not like a neurobiologist.

I assumed that the active ingredients in Vicks would have to be absorbed through the skin, get into the blood stream, circulate throughout the body and ultimately exert some sort of physiological effect on the cough center in the brain.

The Cough Center:

The part of the brain that controls coughing is way at the bottom of the brainstem in an area called the medulla oblongata. It is that part of the brain that manages automatic functions such as breathing, heart rate, vomiting and sneezing. These are beyond our normal conscious control. The medulla borders on the spinal column. Remember that, because it could be very important in our explanation of the Vicks on the feet effect.

A New Theory of Nerve Stimulation to Control Coughs:

Our thinking about how Vicks VapoRub might be working to control coughs was stimulated a few weeks ago when we read about a novel explanation for muscle cramps. A Nobel prize winner, Rod MacKinnon, MD, and his colleague, Bruce Bean, PhD, are world-class neuroscientists. They demonstrated that muscle cramps are triggered by overstimulation of nerves.

Swallowing a beverage containing strong flavors such as ginger, cinnamon and hot pepper extract stimulated nerves in the mouth, throat and stomach. Within two minutes this nerve stimulation affected the spinal column and overwhelmed the nerves that were causing muscle cramps. They came up with a novel explanation for why so many visitors to this site report that a spoonful of mustard eases nighttime leg cramps.

You can read about their research at this link:

How Does A Teaspoon of Mustard Cure Muscle Cramps?

Joe’s New Theory of Vicks vs. Coughs:

The feet actually have lots of nerves. Ask any acupuncturist and she will tell you all about special meridians on the feet. Western medicine has very little understanding of how sensory nerves impact physiology. But Chinese healers have been aware of such pathways for centuries.

Neurobiologists MacKinnon and Bean discovered that stimulating sensory nerves in the mouth, throat and stomach could affect the spinal cord and abruptly stop muscle cramps. What if sensory nerves in the soles of the feet respond to stimulation with Vicks VapoRub by calming a nighttime cough? Remember that the cough center is right next to the spinal cord. If the sensory nerves in the soles of the feet stimulate the spinal cord, they might be able to interrupt the cough cycle.

We grant you that this is speculation on Joe’s part. It may be total nonsense. There is, as yet, no scientific evidence to support his theory. That said, we have an enormous number of reports from visitors to this website.

Here is just the latest report:

Q. I was desperate last night for a way to help my child. He had a horrible hacking cough to the point of throwing up. I was afraid to put him to bed.

I saw a suggestion on your website for Vicks on the soles of the feet and gave it a try. Within ten minutes he was sound asleep and slept right through the night. I have six kids and wish I’d read about this long ago.

A. Rubbing Vicks VapoRub on the soles of the feet seems like an improbable way to treat a cough. There are no studies to show that this works, but many readers have offered testimonials like yours. You might want to put on thick socks after applying the Vicks so the sheets don’t get smeared with goo.

Other stories from visitors:

Karen in Wakefield:

“This definitely works. I tried it last night after suffering all day and night for two days. It was brilliant; the coughing stopped and I had a good nights sleep.”

Christine in Australia:

“My daughter told me this was rubbish and a hoax. I read on line that it was bogus but I have had a night cough for months. I had x-rays, etc. and finally tried the Vicks on the feet solution. It has totally worked! The foot idea, though new, produced the best results yet.”

Martinez in Macon County:

“I’ve been fighting some upper respiratory viral thing for a while now. I work around nurses and was told by one to put Vicks VapoRub on the bottoms of my feet that night. When you cough so much you cough up a lung, you’ll try anything.

“I tried it and slept like a baby. Didn’t do it last night, and coughed all night. I won’t skip it tonight!”

JazzyB in Great Yarmouth says Vicks “works a treat” (a British saying for works great):

“I am 24 and had a terrible cough for ages. I then remembered a post I saw about rubbing Vicks on your feet. I did it and it works a treat, It really surprised me that it worked. I would recommend this to anyone who has a annoying cough whilst trying to sleep at night. Does anyone know how it works? I am intrigued.”

JazzyB, we hope we offered you a plausible explanation above.

Is there a message here for doctors and skeptics? We suggest that just because no one has done a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial does not mean something does not work. Trying to design a placebo-controlled study that involves smearing Vicks on the feet could be challenging given the distinctive aroma of this product. And just because there is no obvious explanation for how something works does not mean it is bogus. You may find another article of interest:

Should Doctors Embrace Home Remedies?

Doctors frequently embrace pharmaceuticals even though there may not be a good explanation for how or why they work. It is not entirely obvious why diuretics or beta blockers lower blood pressure and yet hundreds of millions of prescriptions are written for such drugs each year. Even antidepressants may not be working the way researchers originally imagined. We don’t think there should be a double standard for pharmaceuticals and home remedies.

If you find home remedies intriguing even if no one has done experiments to test them or come up with a scientific explanation, you may wish to consult our book, The People’s Pharmacy Quick & Handy Home Remedies. It is filled with intriguing stories and surprising science to support a number of cool approaches for common ailments. It’s never too early to start shopping for the holidays!

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About the Author
Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist who has dedicated his career to making drug information understandable to consumers. His best-selling book, The People’s Pharmacy, was published in 1976 and led to a syndicated newspaper column, syndicated public radio show and web site. In 2006, Long Island University awarded him an honorary doctorate as “one of the country's leading drug experts for the consumer.” .
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