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Old-Fashioned Vicks VapoRub Vindicated

Science now supports using old-fashioned Vicks VapoRub to calm coughs. It can also help treat stubborn nail fungus and so much more.

Americans love shiny new things. Marketing experts plaster the words “New and Improved” on just about everything and it seems to work. But here at The People’s Pharmacy we like “time-tested” as a slogan. An American brand that has gained worldwide recognition was invented 130 years ago in Greensboro, North Carolina. That was when pharmacist Lunsford Richardson developed Vicks Croup & Pneumonia Salve. He named it after his brother-in-law, Dr. Joshua Vick. The physician was respected in the community and his name was short enough to fit easily on the label. These days, though, relatively few physicians recommend old-fashioned Vicks for coughs or anything else for that matter. But readers of The People’s Pharmacy know a good thing when they use it.

What’s in Old Fashioned Vicks VapoRub?

The ingredients you will find in the familiar blue bottle of Vicks VapoRub today are the same as those developed over 100 years ago. Menthol, a key ingredient in the salve, was a novelty at that time.

Richardson encountered this herbal compound while traveling in France. He added other aromatic ingredients including camphor, eucalyptus oil, thymol, cedarleaf oil, nutmeg oil and turpentine oil.

This unmistakable fragrance is now known all over the world. It’s beloved in Latin America under a variety of nicknames: El Vickisito, El Bic, Vivaporu and El Bix.

The 1918 influenza pandemic gave the brand a huge boost. That’s because so many people had terrible trouble breathing and Vicks VapoRub seemed to offer some relief.

Old Fashioned Vicks Is New Again:

The family sold the iconic brand to Procter & Gamble in 1985. Instead of letting it languish, the company has continued to innovate. There are dozens of Vicks branded products including a VapoInhaler, a wearable aroma patch called VápoPatch and Puffs Plus® facial tissues scented with Vicks.

But wait…there’s more. The folks at P&G have developed lots more products under this venerable brand. There is: VápoShower Tablets, VápoStick Balm, VápoBath and VápoSteam. Ingredients that have maintained their popularity for so long must have something going for them.

Unique Uses For Old-Fashioned Vicks:

Vicks for Nail Fungus:

We first started hearing from readers about unique uses for Vicks VapoRub about 25 years ago. Foot care nurse Jane Kelley of Richmond, Massachusetts, let us know that applying Vicks to fungus-infected toenails could help them heal:

“A daily, light film of VapoRub gradually penetrates the affected nail, softening the debris and enables easier removal, while it seems to prevent fungal invasion into the newer emerging nail.”

Dermatologists often seem skeptical when we mention this home remedy. But this article in the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine reported on the results of an actual study, demonstrating a “positive treatment effect in 83% of the subjects.”

You can listen to our interview with Jane Kelley, see other studies and read hundreds of testimonials supporting old-fashioned Vicks Vaporub for nail fungus at this link.

Some people have found an unusual way to apply Vicks.

Vicks for Coughs:

Madeline has a lot of company in her experience:

“Last year I suffered from a respiratory virus with a horrible cough. I was so desperate for nighttime relief, I decided to try the Vicks on the feet remedy. Long story short, it worked. I’m a believer.”

Lots of people find it hard to imagine that smearing Vicks VapoRub on the soles of the feet would do anything to ease a cough. We always recommend that if people try this, they put on socks to keep it off the bedsheets.

If a person actually tries the remedy, they often react like Steve did:

“I was struggling with a cough for six weeks, especially at night when I laid down. I went to urgent care twice, but I got no relief.

“I finally went to my primary care doctor, who diagnosed me with walking pneumonia. He prescribed a powerful antibiotic. When I told him how bad the coughing was at night, he recommended Vicks on the bottoms of my feet when I went to bed. I thought he was joking. He told me it worked for him.

“I tried it that very night and I’m telling you it was like magic! I had gotten up five straight nights with terrible coughing. I slept through the night with Vicks with little to no coughing every night thereafter.”

How Vicks Works to Calm Coughs:

A study in the journal Drugs in Context (Oct. 11, 2023) concludes that some of the ingredients in Vicks reduce symptoms associated with upper respiratory tract infections through action on transient receptor potential channels (TRP). Scientists are confirming that Vicks VapoRub indeed has measurable benefits.

Parents with young children are faced with a difficult dilemma. When their youngsters come down with colds, parents want to give something to soothe symptoms. Congestion and a nighttime cough can keep both children and parents awake.

The trouble is, there are no good cough remedies for kids. The cough suppressant dextromethorphan (DM) in so many products has not been found helpful for children (Clinical Pediatrics, Sept. 2006).

So what’s a parent to do? Listening to a child cough all night is distressing. But giving a child ineffective medicine that may have side effects is not the answer.

Old-Fashioned Vicks to Help KIds’ Coughs:

Perhaps it is time to consider a really old-fashioned remedy. Families around the world have used Vicks VapoRub to calm coughs and congestion ever since.

Investigators at Penn State College of Medicine performed a fascinating study (Pediatrics, Dec. 2010). Over 130 children with colds were recruited. Each child was randomly assigned to a treatment group: they got Vicks VapoRub, plain petroleum jelly or nothing.

In order to disguise the distinctive aroma of Vicks VapoRub, parents were given Vicks to apply beneath their own noses before opening the unmarked container they were to smear on their child’s chest.

The results were intriguing. Old-fashioned Vicks VapoRub actually did ease cough and congestion. Most strikingly, children treated with Vicks “were significantly more able to sleep than were children randomized to receive petrolatum.” Parents slept better too.

We’re not surprised. Vicks VapoRub has persisted for generations while other patent medicines have fallen by the wayside.

We have even heard of an adaptation:

“For years my sister has put Vicks on the soles of her children’s feet. I also did it for my children. It helps for coughs. The main thing is to rub the Vicks in, creating friction and warmth to the bottoms of the feet, put on warm socks and then put them to bed. It is the best medicine there is for little ones who are sick.

“My 18-year-old came to me one day and said, ‘Mom, do my feet for me, please.’ He had a cold, so I rubbed those size 11 feet, and gave him warm socks to put on. He loved my personal touch and I was happy to do it.”

Learn More:

Anyone who would like to learn more about Vicks VapoRub or other ways to treat colds may wish to order our Guides to Colds, Coughs & the Flu and Unique Uses for Vicks.

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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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  • Stinson RJ et al, "Ingredients of Vicks VapoRub inhibit rhinovirus-induced ATP release." Drugs in Context, Oct. 11, 2023. DOI: 10.7573/dic.2023-3-2
  • Yoder KE et al, "Child assessment of dextromethorphan, diphenhydramine, and placebo for nocturnal cough due to upper respiratory infection." Clinical Pediatrics, Sept. 2006. DOI: 10.1177/0009922806291014
  • Paul IM et al, "Vapor Rub, Petrolatum, and No Treatment for Children With Nocturnal Cough and Cold Symptoms." Pediatrics, Dec. 2010. https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2010-1601
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