Is It Dangerous to Use Vicks VapoRub Under a Child's Nose?

Mother and baby boy on bed
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Do your childhood memories include Vicks VapoRub smeared under your nose when you had a cough or cold? You are not alone, yet the label clearly states that it should not be applied to your nostrils. In addition, the VapoRub label says it is not to be used in any way for children under age 2. The BabyRub formula can be used on babies 3 months and older, but it also specifically states not to use it on the face or in the nostrils.

What are the risks of using these products under a child's nose rather than on the chest, neck, or sore limbs?

Could VapoRub Increase Mucus Production?

Dr. Bruce Rubin is the co-author of a study published in the journal Chest that says some babies or toddlers may experience respiratory distress from using VapoRub under the nose. In a press release, he notes,

"The ingredients in Vicks can be irritants, causing the body to produce more mucus to protect the airway. And since infants and young children have airways that are much narrower than those of an adult, any increase in mucus or swelling can narrow them severely."

This study received wide publicity as parents generally use Vicks VapoRub for the use stated on the product label—cough suppression. If the ingredients are producing more mucus, that seems like it would make the situation worse.

The thing to note is that the research findings were made on tissue cultures from ferret tracheas.

When they then examined the effects on live ferrets, the difference was not statistically significant. The researchers also commented that the menthol in Vicks fools the brain into perceiving increased airflow while not actually improving breathing. A critical letter on the study from Dr. Ian M. Paul, a consultant for Proctor & Gamble Company, notes that this symptomatic relief is what the product claims to do and it is welcomed by most users.

VapoRub Provides Relief But With Minor Side Effects

A study by Dr. Ian M. Paul was published in 2010 comparing VapoRub, petrolatum (petroleum jelly) and no treatment for children who had a nighttime cough and cold symptoms. VapoRub or petrolatum was applied to the chest and neck area of the child. The study found that children treated with VapoRub were significantly better able to sleep than children who received petrolatum or no treatment, and the parents were also able to sleep better. VapoRub was slightly better than petrolatum for reducing cough frequency and severity, and petrolatum was slightly better than no treatment. VapoRub was slightly better than no treatment for nasal congestion.

There was a significant number of mild irritant adverse effects in the VapoRub group, with 46 percent reporting at least one, usually a burning sensation of the skin, nose, or eyes. Skin rash and redness were also noted in a few cases.

It should be noted that this study was not well-blinded, despite some clever attempts to do so in the study design, as the parents were able to successfully guess whether the child was getting VapoRub or petrolatum. Also, only children who did not have asthma or other serious respiratory diseases were included in the study.

Note that the researcher had an unrestricted research grant from Procter & Gamble Company, the maker of VapoRub.

BabyRub Makes Only Claims of Soothing

Vicks very carefully never claims that Vicks BabyRub Soothing Ointment will help your baby breathe better. They never say that it will clear mucus or act as a decongestant. Unlike their adult VapoRub and the VapoRub Children's Formula, they never claim that it will relieve your baby's cough. They just say that if you rub it on your baby, it will help him relax.

You can do this with any lotion (or no lotion at all), so why buy the Vicks? Probably because after 100 years on the market and after your mom slathered it on you as a kid, you've made the association between VapoRub and the cold.

The BabyRub version doesn't contain all of the same ingredients as VapoRub, which was used in both of the studies. VapoRub lists camphor, menthol, and eucalyptus oil as active ingredients and also lists inactive ingredients of turpentine oil, nutmeg oil, and cedar leaf oil. BabyRub lists fragrances of eucalyptus, rosemary, and lavender but no active ingredients.

Use As Directed

The bottom line is that VapoRub is for big kids. BabyRub probably won't harm your baby when he has a cold, but you may want to try natural remedies instead.

Sources:

Abanses JC, Arima S, Rubin BK. Vicks VapoRub Induces Mucin Secretion, Decreases Ciliary Beat Frequency, and Increases Tracheal Mucus Transport in the Ferret Trachea. Chest. 2009;135(1):143-148. doi:10.1378/chest.08-0095.

Paul IM, Beiler JS, King TS, Clapp ER, Vallati J, Berlin CM. Vapor Rub, Petrolatum, and No Treatment for Children With Nocturnal Cough and Cold Symptoms. Pediatrics. 2010;126(6):1092-1099. doi:10.1542/peds.2010-1601.

Paul IM. Vicks VapoRub Study. Chest. 2009;136(2):650. doi:10.1378/chest.09-0324.