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To Vicks or Not to Vicks

woman with cold
By Rod Moser, PA, PhDNovember 10, 2010
From the WebMD Archives

The walls of my examining rooms are filled with articles that I have copied from my medical news sources, especially WebMD. Medical science is flooded with ambiguity. I will find one article chastising a certain practice, only to find another one a few months later, supporting it. Just like caffeine, or birth control pills, there are publications posted nearly every week, condemning or extolling their benefits.

In January last year, Reuters Health reported on the hazards of topical mentholated cold remedies, known by most of us as Vicks VapoRub. The authors of this study claim that the congestion may actually worsen mucous production and airway inflammation in infants and toddlers. In a study using ferrets (ferrets???), they found that Vicks caused an increase mucus production and decreased ciliary beat frequency by 36%. Apparently, ferrets have a similar respiratory system to humans. That, I did not know.

Vicks VapoRub contains some potent aromatics — camphor, menthol, and eucalyptus oil — used for decades by mothers and grandmothers to treat colds and other respiratory ailments. As a child, I can vividly remember getting greased up by the contents of this little blue jar. In order to increase its assumed effectiveness, my mother would heat up towels (clean, cloth diapers actually), smear on the Vicks, and slap it on my chest. A little was smeared under my nose, in case I couldn’t smell the vapors arising from my stinging chest.

Vicks used to be a good warning. If you came into someone’s home and it smelled of Vicks, you know someone is ill. Since Vicks was also melted in vaporizers, the whole neighborhood smelled of Vicks during the winter months. Even the kids at school had the telltale odor trail of camphor.

Not all that smelled of camphor was Vicks. Years ago, parents also used Oil of Camphor (very strong) in those vaporizers. If a kid accidentally drank some of this stuff, it was highly toxic. Vicks, on the other hand is only about 11% camphor, so you would need to eat a lot of it to be dangerous — not something any sane person or adventuresome toddler is likely to do.

My late grandfather would heat a spoonful up on the stove and actually ingest it for sore throats or whatever. To clarify, as a coal miner, he died of black lung and lung cancer, not from eating Vicks. My mother and grandparents used Vicks like that guy in My Big Fat Greek Wedding used Windex. I swear that my mother also used it on cuts, sunburn, and poison oak, too. She would rub it on sore feet like some sort of liniment. Of course, these are unapproved uses for this product and no one really knows how Vicks works anyway.

Just this week, CNN reported that Vicks VapoRub may help ease nighttime symptoms of colds in children, contradicting the previous study. Of course, this new study was funded by Proctor and Gamble, the makers of Vicks. They compared Vicks with Vaseline, and surprisingly, the Vaseline group did not fare as well. They didn’t report this, but I suspect that both groups were slippery. Vicks smells so strong, so medicinal, that it would be difficult to do a good double-blind study.

Do I recommend Vicks for my patients who have colds? No, not really, but neither do I pooh-pooh it. If Grandma is recommending it, I try and stay out of an argument about using it or not. For very young infants, I do advise parents not to use it in a vaporizer in a closed room and I don’t really suggest putting it under their noses. You only have to accidentally rub Vicks in your eyes once. It stings like crazy.

Colds last about a week if you treat ‘em, and seven days if you leave ‘em alone. If Vicks makes you feel better, or makes the parents feel better, than why not? It does give you something to do while Nature orchestrates a cure.

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