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Can Vicks VapoRub on Your Soles Calm Your Cough?

Have you ever massaged Vicks VapoRub on your soles at night to get some sleep without coughing? Many readers find this is a helpful remedy.

Sometimes a cough can linger on long after the respiratory infection that triggered it has vanished. What do you do for such a cough? We have heard from a surprising number of people that smearing Vicks VapoRub on your soles can quiet even a persistent cough.

Have You Tried Vicks VapoRub on Your Soles?

Q. I’m skeptical by nature. I was hesitant to try Vicks VapoRub on my feet, but for the past three days I have had the worst cough ever. I’ve been coughing every hour on the hour nonstop. My ribs feel like I’ve been in the ring with Mike Tyson.

Two nights ago I was really struggling to get any rest. My husband suggested putting Vicks on the soles of my feet. I was desperate, so I slathered on the Vicks, put on socks, and within 5-10 minutes the coughing STOPPED. I was able to sleep all night!

In the morning the coughs started up again and lasted all-day-long. A few hours before bedtime I tried a prescription cough medicine. Nothing. If anything, my coughs seemed to be getting worse until I was almost vomiting.

Hubby to the rescue again: “Try the Vicks VapoRub on your soles.”

I did and had the same results. With 5 to 10 minutes the coughing subsided. I was able to rest comfortably. I wish I knew the science behind this. Whatever it is, it’s worked for me like a charm two nights in a row. I am a believer.

Why Does Putting Vick VapoRub on Your Feet Help a Cough?

A. You and many other readers agree that this remedy works. We have even come up with an explanation for why Vicks and many other remedies work for common ailments. The skin on the soles of the feet (and that on the palms of the hands, too) has receptors that can sense compounds like the camphor and menthol in Vicks VapoRub. The transient receptor potential (TRP) channels that react to these agents can reverse muscle cramps and seem to do something similar for a reflexive cough.

Vicks VapoRub also contains thymol, which has been shown to ease coughs. One mother did a brief “controlled” study on her twins that may interest you. You can read more about the science behind Vicks VapoRub on your soles and other such approaches in our eGuide to Favorite Home Remedies.

Vicks VapoRub Calms Irritable Larynx:

Q. I have had what’s known as a neurogenic cough, also known as irritable larynx, for decades. I cough every day when I get up, begin eating or drinking, during or after a meal, when my throat tickles and even when I just think about trying not to cough.

Doctors wanted me to take gabapentin, but for me it was a terrible drug. Instead, I resigned myself to live with coughing.

Then I read about calming a cough with Vicks VapoRub on the soles of the feet. I tried it last night with no expectation it would help. On the other hand, I had nothing to lose.

It worked! It was still working this morning when I had breakfast. If this relieves my coughing long term, it would be a miracle!

Don’t Ignore Persistent Cough:

A. A chronic cough could be caused by medications such as the blood pressure pill lisinopril. Other possible contributors could be asthma, postnasal drip, acid reflux, smoking, cancer or infection.

When such sources have been ruled out, doctors may diagnose neurogenic cough, related to hypersensitive nerves in the larynx. Otolaryngologists may recommend speech therapy. Some doctors inject steroids, local anesthetics or Botox into the vocal cords.

Using Vicks VapoRub on the soles of the feet to control this kind of cough is untested and unorthodox. On the other hand, there is very little downside. We have written about this approach for nighttime coughs associated with colds or flu. There is no scientific research, but hundreds of readers have found it helpful.

As described above, we think Vicks works by stimulating nerves that control the cough center. The action through these TRP channels might explain your response. Please let us know if you continue to get benefit.

Calming a Cough After Abdominal Surgery:

After abdominal surgery, coughing or laughing can cause excruciating pain. Although few people can laugh in such a situation, many will need to cough. How can you calm a cough to avoid the pain?

Putting Vicks VapoRub on the Feet to Calm a Cough:

Q. I was in the hospital for three weeks following major surgery for colon cancer. Needless to say, it was very painful to cough!

I had my husband bring Vicks VapoRub from home and asked the nurses to put it on the soles of my feet as a cough suppressant. They witnessed first-hand how well it worked to calm a cough. They said they couldn’t wait to try it on their kids.

A. Smearing Vicks VapoRub on the soles of the feet strikes many people as an improbable cough remedy. We have seen it work, however.

How Does Vicks Work?

Menthol, which is one of the ingredients in Vicks, is found in most cough lozenges. It inhibits coughing by stimulating specialized nerve endings found in the skin as well as the mouth and throat (Current Pharmaceutical Design, vol. 22, No. 15, 2016).  It works through the transient receptor potential, TRPM8, which inhibits the cough reflex. This TRP channel also senses cold (Elife, July 23, 2016). Such action on the TRP channels may explain how Vicks VapoRub on the soles of the feet calms a cough.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies..
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