Vicks VapoRub: Danger That's Right Under Your Kid's Nose?

Mother and baby boy on bed
IMAGEMORE Co., Ltd./Getty Images

So, if you're a crazy label reader like myself, you know that you're not supposed to put Vicks VapoRub under your nose. And you're definitely not supposed to put it under your baby's or toddler's nose. The VapoRub version of the product says not to use it on kids this young -- period -- and the BabyRub version specifically states not to use it in the nostrils.

That never stopped my mom, though. The smell of VapoRub brings back all kinds of strange memories for me.

Chicken soup. Missing school. All my siblings avoiding me like, well, the plague. Luckily, I didn't ever go into respiratory distress after my many VapoRub mustaches, but it could happen to some babies or toddlers according to a study published in the journal Chest. A Reuters report quotes one of the researchers, Dr. Bruce Rubin, as saying:

"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."

What caught my eye about this isn't so much that the ingredients can be irritants, but rather that what these ingredients do is produce more mucus to protect the airway. Isn't that kind of making the situation worse? If my child has more mucus, isn't he likely to be coughing more and be even more miserable?

There's another interesting report out there where a reader wrote in to the Chicago Tribune puzzled after seeing a commercial with a baby getting its feet rubbed with some Vicks. It confirms my above suspicion with more from Dr. Rubin's study:

"Rubin's research shows that the menthol in Vicks may trick a patient into feeling more comfortable when it's applied as intended on the chest, throat or back. But it does nothing to improve breathing."

Not cool. Although, Vicks very carefully never claims that BabyRub (which is what that commercial was advertising) will help your baby breathe better. They never say that it will clear mucus or act as a decongestant. They never say 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. By the way, the BabyRub version doesn't contain all of the same ingredients as VapoRub and it was VapoRub used in the study.

Another thought I've been having about this is related to a recall back in 2006 of the Triaminic Vapor Patch. (A lot of parents and others weren't too happy about this if the 20+ comments on that post are any indication.) They were recalled because the patch "contains camphor, eucalyptus oil, and menthol. The reported adverse events associated with swallowing products containing camphor or eucalyptus oils can vary from minor symptoms, such as burning sensation in the mouth, headache, nausea, and vomiting, to more severe reactions, such as seizures."

These patches were labeled "not for use" in kids under 2 years of age much like VapoRub and they contain the same ingredients as Vicks VapoRub. Actually, VapoRub contains even more stuff than the patches did (stuff like turpentine oil, nutmeg oil, and cedarleaf oil), but according to a company statement, they've never had any problems (like those reported with the patches) when used as directed.

Also related, when I saw this hack last year (put VapoRub on a panty liner and place under your child's sheet) I considered that it might be a good solution for those missing the recalled patches. Probably not such a good idea, however.

And this definitely falls in the category of "not according to package directions."

Bottom line: VapoRub is for big kids. BabyRub probably won't help or harm your baby with a cold, either way. For something truly effective and free of possibly harmful ingredients, try these natural remedies instead.

Continue Reading