Vicks VapoRub, the pungent, over-the-counter chest rub that purportedly relieves coughs, congestion and minor aches, may be dangerous for children ages two and younger, according to a new study.
Ferrets whose airways were inflamed produced 8 percent more mucus after they sniffed the product's mentholated fumes, according to research published today in the journal Chest. (Ferrets are often studied as models of human airway inflammation.)
That amount of excess mucus might be manageable for larger humans, but babies with narrower airways could have trouble breathing if they react to the smell, says study author Bruce Rubin, professor and vice chair of research in the Department of Pediatrics at the Wake Forest University School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, N.C. The hospital there has treated several children under two years old whose caretakers had given them Vicks VapoRub, he says.
Procter & Gamble, which makes Vicks VapoRub, warns on the packaging that the product shouldn’t be used in kids younger than two. But some parents apply it anyway, especially to the chests, feet and under the noses of sniffly tykes, Rubin says.
"Vicks VapoRub has a long-standing history of being safe and effective when used according to package directions," P&G said in a statement. "The article in Chest describes animal studies prompted by a single case report. The animal findings are of unknown human clinical relevance."
Users have reported skin and eye irritation, but those effects are "typically mild and self-resolving," the company added. A Food and Drug Administration (FDA) spokesperson couldn't immediately say if the agency had received reports of serious problems among users of the product.
Vicks VapoRub contains eucalyptus, camphor and menthol. The ointment's mentholated fumes trigger cold-temperature receptors in the nose that give the brain a sensation of increased air flow, even though patients aren’t actually breathing any easier, Rubin notes. "It provides symptomatic relief," he says. "It doesn’t improve air flow, but it does give that same sensation of increased air flow."
In some people, the cold sensation may warn the brain that the nose could dry out, triggering mucus production, he says. Rubin adds that children's colds are best treated with "love, hugs and kisses, chicken soup and time. The other things won't make a cold go away faster."
An FDA advisory panel two years ago warned that over-the-counter cold and cough meds don't work in kids under six years old. In January 2008, the FDA said the drugs shouldn't be given to children age two and younger because overdoses could stop them from breathing.
For a more light-hearted take on Vicks VapoRub, check out this classic Saturday Night Live skit, in which Bill Murray, playing Todd diMaluca, attempts to seduce Gilda Radner's nerdy Lisa Loopner character. (You need to get to about minute five for the mention.) As Murray says of the Vicks scent, "It's haunting. I'll never forget it."