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Vicks on the Feet Calms Night Cough: Not a Placebo!

Many health professionals insist that home remedies are placebos. What if there were an explanation for Vicks on the feet to calm a cough?

We have no idea why someone first experimented with Vicks VapoRub on the soles of the feet. We do know that whenever we publish a story about putting Vicks on the feet for a nighttime cough we hear from skeptics who insist that this is a placebo effect. Since there are no scientific studies to prove otherwise, we shrug and say that it works for us and a lot of readers of our syndicated newspaper column. Now we have a fascinating “experiment” that suggests it might be more than “suggestibility.”

The “Niece Study” Of Vicks on the Feet:

Q. I had a pretty mild cold about a week ago that turned into a nasty cough. The sore throat, sneezing and congestion disappeared within three days but this darn cough won’t let go. It keeps waking me up at night. Cough medicine doesn’t help. Do you have any remedies that might let me get a decent night’s sleep?

A. A remedy that has a lot of support from readers is Vicks VapoRub smeared on the soles of the feet.

Here is just one of many stories we have received:

“I have used Vicks numerous times for my husband and me. It worked but I didn’t know if it was due to a placebo effect (and I didn’t really care, so long as it worked).

“Our nieces were staying with us a few years ago and they both had a nagging cough. One night the older niece was coughing in her sleep. I went in her room, put Vicks on the soles of her feet and put socks on her. She didn’t cough the rest of the night.

“The next night, the younger niece was coughing. I did the same to her and she didn’t cough any more that night either. Neither of the girls knew that I had put the Vicks on their feet so the placebo effect seems unlikely.”

Vicks Calmed a COVID Cough:

Q. I had a very mild (but long lasting) case of COVID-19 last year. I am fully vaxxed and boosted. Although it was less troublesome than a cold, it did induce a dry cough that made it hard to sleep.

Vicks VapoRub to the rescue! Actually, I used a house brand and slathered it on the soles of both feet. Then I put on my thick socks and was relieved to find the coughing minimized. I hope others get the same benefit.

A. We’re glad you have recovered fully from COVID-19. Many people report a lingering cough that may last several months.

Thank you for sharing your success story with Vicks VapoRub. We have heard from many readers that this approach can be helpful against coughs related to colds or influenza. You are the first to report using it against a COVID-related cough. There is more information about Vicks and other cough remedies in our eGuide to Colds, Coughs & the Flu.

A Semi-Scientific Hypothesis for Vicks on the Feet:

The soles of your feet are loaded with nerves. We hypothesize that the camphor and menthol (and possibly other ingredients in Vicks) stimulate sensory neurons in the feet. These are referred to as TRP (transient receptor potential) channels.

When these nerves are activated they send messages to the spinal cord. We suspect that the cough center, just above the spinal cord, is affected. This might well explain how a cough is calmed so quickly by Vicks on the feet.

You can read much more about Joe’s hypothesis about Why Vicks on the Feet Calms a Cough here:

More Reports from Readers About Vicks on the Feet:

Robin in North Carolina got an added bonus:

“I do this regularly. I apply Vicks on my feet whenever I have a cough. It does work.

“There is another benefit that I receive by doing this. My feet became really soft. I have always had a problem with dryness on the soles of my feet. They would crack and peel, always in the winter months or the middle of the summer.

“I would end up with a horrendous cough from allergies and sinus infections. The Vicks on my feet with socks not only would help with my cough, but it helped the skin on the soles of my feet as well.”

Nam in Westminster, California, was a skeptic…until:

“I was trained in medicine and always have a scientist’s mind. I never believed in this.

“About 10 years ago I had a real bad cold and coughed uncontrollably day and night. My wife kept telling me to apply Vicks on the feet at night so we both could sleep. I kept telling her it would not work. Don’t even try it.

“She waited until I felt asleep. She applied Vicks to both of my feet and pulled my socks back on (I knew but because I was so tired, I just let her finish) and I slept like a baby that night.

“In the morning, I thanked her and said I was wrong all along, I thought it never would have worked. I applied another layer of Vicks to both of my feet and went to work. All that day I did not cough at all. I did the same thing the next few nights and days and my cough just never came back.

“I told my colleagues and they were surprised. Some tried this technique themselves and agreed with me. Because of the guidelines and regulations, physicians can’t tell patients about this remedy but their office employees can.”

Learn More:

You will find more remedies in our eGuide to Colds, Coughs and the Flu. We describe another “experiment” with Vicks on the feet to calm a cough. You will also get more scientific detail on the potential mechanism for this unique approach. If you would like to know more about the herbs Andrographis paniculata and Astragalus membranaceus, this eGuide is right up your alley. There is information about zinc and elderberry as well as thyme tea. You will also learn about the latest antiviral drug against influenza, baloxavir (Xofluza). You can find this eGuide under the Health eGuides tab.

Share your own Vicks VapoRub story in the comment section below.

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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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