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

Smearing Vicks VapoRub on the soles of the feet offers remarkable relief for a nighttime cough. We even think we know why it works!

On Paul Simon’s Grammy award winning album “Graceland” is an amazing song titled “Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes.” Take a moment to watch it being performed with Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

Link to early Paul Simon version

Link to mature Paul Simon version

Vicks VapoRub on the soles of your feet may not be as memorable as diamonds on the soles of your shoes.

However, we’ve heard from many readers that it can be pretty amazing.

Q. As many others have testified on your website, I too tried Vicks VapoRub on the soles of my feet. I was certainly skeptical of this weird remedy for night-time coughing and congestion from a cold, but I was desperate. I had already determined what I had was not COVID.

To my surprise, I awoke in the morning refreshed, baffled and yet delighted to realize that I had slept through the night without so much as a sniffle, a tickle or a cough. Thank you.

A. We are delighted to hear that putting Vicks on the soles of your feet was so helpful against your cough. As you note, many others have tried this remedy for night-time cough, donning thick socks to protect the bedsheets.

Angela says she was desperate:

“I was skeptical about Vicks for my feet, but my current cough and other symptoms were keeping me from doing anything, especially sleeping. I begged my husband to pick up some Vicks VapoRub on his way home from work. It was a long, hacking, aching wait! But I finally got the stuff on my feet and drifted off to sleep peacefully within about 5 minutes. I’m praying for similar effects during the day so I can get back to work soon.”

DKC also had success:

“I wouldn’t have tried it or believed it, but at 3AM I was desperate to suppress my constant cough and sleep! So I decided to try it and IDK why it worked, but it did. Lasted for several hours; I’ve done it twice now!”

Gayle decided to try this remedy for a sick child:

“I have heard for several years that when your child has a cough you should put Vicks on his feet. I thought it was ridiculous. Why would that work? On his chest, yes, but feet? So I hadn’t done that.

“My son coughs until he starts to vomit. Every single time he gets even the slightest cold, he does that. He’s seven years old and has a nasty virus right now, as do I.

“I decided to try Vicks on his chest. I didn’t remember it working that well when I was a kid, so I hadn’t tried it before.

“My husband said to put it on his feet. So, I said, ok, I’ll try it. Still thinking it was silly, I put it on his feet but not mine.

“I am amazed. He slept all night with no coughing. I know because I would have heard him; I was awake most of the night coughing. I didn’t put it on my own feet.”

YE says we should take soles seriously:

“This comment is only partly about Vicks VapoRub and partly about the bottoms of the feet. About seventy years ago I learned about putting medication on the feet instead of into the stomach; my brother had pneumonia and was in great distress when a neighbor lady suggested that we make a poultice of onions boiled in sugar syrup, pack it on his feet and wrap with cloth and cover with socks. Don’t laugh! It worked! His fever broke and he got well very quickly.

“Back to Vicks; it has always been a mainstay for my family as it cures, yes cures, many things including athlete’s foot.”

Pat swears by this remedy:

“This absolutely works for me.  I usually get bronchitis at least 1-2 times per year and Vicks on the soles of my feet stops the cough so I can sleep.  Usually works in 5-10 minutes.”

Jenny is also enthusiastic:

“I just tried this Vicks remedy about 10 minutes ago and my coughing has already stopped. I was coughing every 3-5 minutes for about 30 minutes straight and it’s amazing how something can work so quickly. Not even those over the counter cough medications work as well as Vicks, soles and socks! Love it.”

We cannot promise that putting Vicks on the soles of the feet  will work for everyone. But if it does the job, it would be at least as valuable as having diamonds on the soles of your shoes.

How Does Vicks VapoRub Calm a Cough?

Skeptics write to us to say that this remedy is total nonsense. They cannot wrap their minds around the mechanism.

Here is what Tim had to say about VapoRub on the feet:

“Terrible article. Pure fluff, or maybe written as an ad for Vicks. You don’t bother to tell us why, or give any scientific or medical information, only testimonials.”

First, this is not an ad for Vicks VapoRub! We accept no money from pharmaceutical companies and never have! The current manufacturer of the product  is Procter & Gamble. We have no relationship with P&G. We take no money from P&G and this article is not an ad!

We would be the first to admit that we can find no researchers who have undertaken studies to 1) investigate whether Vicks works to calm a cough when applied to the soles of the feet or 2) elucidate a mechanism of action. That said, we do have a hypothesis.

The Cough Center

The part of the brain that controls coughing is down 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, swallowing and sneezing. The medulla borders on the spinal column.

Feet to Brain

We initially wondered whether there could be absorption of the active and or inactive ingredients in Vicks VapoRub through the skin. We pondered the possibility that compounds such as camphor, menthol, thymol or eucalyptus oil might penetrate the thick skin of our soles, circulate through the blood stream and eventually end up affecting the medulla.

We rejected that idea because 1) we didn’t think enough would get into the blood stream and 2) it would probably take too long to account for the fast responses people were reporting.

That’s when we came up with another idea. 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.

A review in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience (Aug. 20, 2021) offers this insight:

“The neural mechanisms of acupuncture are not well-understood. Over the past decades, an increasing number of studies have used MRI to investigate the response of the brain to acupuncture.”

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 (Ebihara et al, Current Pharmaceutical Design, vol. 22, No. 15, 2016). It works through the transient receptor potential, TRPM8. This TRP channel also senses cold (Janssens et al, Elife, July 23, 2016).

Sensory nerves in the skin can travel to the spinal cord. It is a fast highway to reach the brain, whereas the blood stream is a much slower pathway. Stimulating TRP channels in the soles of the feet may explain how Vicks VapoRub calms a cough.

Not by Menthol Alone:

Menthol is not the only ingredient in Vicks VapoRub that may be working through transient receptor potential channels. We mentioned eucalyptol, which also triggers TRPM8 (British Journal of Pharmacology, May 2017). Another compound, camphor, also activates TRP channels TRPV1, TRPV3 and TRPA1 in addition to TRPM8 (Communications Biology, March 5, 2021). Moreover, thymol activates TRPA1 (Molecules, Oct. 22, 2020). Folk medicine has long touted thyme and thyme oil, the source of thymol, as a beneficial herbal medicine against cough. An experiment applying thymol as a nasal spray confirmed this effect (Respiratory Physiology & Neurobiology, June 1, 2013).

Learn More About Vicks:

Share your own Vicks VapoRub story below in the comment section. You may also want to read our eGuide to Colds, Coughs & the Flu. It contains information on many other approaches for easing symptoms of upper respiratory tract infections.

If you want to learn more about the scientific perspective on utilizing Vicks, vinegar or yellow mustard against muscle cramps, check out our eGuide to Favorite Home Remedies. This online resource provides scientific explanations and relevant studies to explain why so many home remedies work. Hint: the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine for 2021 was awarded to the researchers who did the basic science on transient receptor potential (TRP) channels.

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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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Citations
  • Caceres AI et al, "Transient Receptor Potential Cation Channel Subfamily M Member 8 channels mediate the anti-inflammatory effects of eucalyptol." British Journal of Pharmacology, May 2017. DOI: 10.1111/bph.13760
  • Nguyen THD et al, "Structural basis for promiscuous action of monoterpenes on TRP channels." Communications Biology, March 5, 2021. DOI: 10.1038/s42003-021-01776-0
  • Ghosh M et al, "Essential Oils from Monarda fistulosa: Chemical Composition and Activation of Transient Receptor Potential A1 (TRPA1) Channels." Molecules, Oct. 22, 2020. DOI: 10.3390/molecules25214873
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