Recent study: Do vapor rubs work?

Vapor rubs, such as Vicks Vaporub, are a commonly used cold remedy, and typically contain ingredients such as camphor, menthol, and eucalyptus oil. A recent studya in the journal Pediatrics claim that they do help everybody sleep better during cold symptoms. But wait, before you all rush out to buy some Vicks VapoRub, let’s examine this study a bit more closely—I found a few flaws while paying closer attention to some of the details:

  1. The lead author, Dr. Ian Paul of Penn State College of Medicine, just happens to have been a paid consultant for a company called Procter and Gamble. Procter and Gamble, as it turns out, is the maker of Vicks VapoRub. Hmmm....
  2. They claim the study was double-blinded. But how do you blind a parent from knowing if they received the vapor rub or the plain petrolatum? Don’t you think they could smell the difference pretty easily? Of course they could.
  3. While the researchers did educate parents on general cold care, including things like saline drops, they specifically asked the parents not to use any routine cold care at night. This means that the control group was pretty much forced to sit there and let their children suffer. Well any treatment, if only placebo, is better than that! What we want to know is if you’re doing everything possible to keep your child comfortable, will a vapor rub add anything to their comfort.
  4. What about harm? Camphor, as it turns out, has frequently been cited to cause toxicity, including a recent report about kids having seizures from camphor poisoning. Would a single smear of camphor-containing ointment on your child’s chest at night cause them to have a seizure? Probably not. But do you want them inhaling anything all night that has the potential for neurotoxicity? Something to consider.

If you ask me, lots of love, homemade chicken soup, and a nice steam shower work just fine.

-Dr. Joel



Paul IM, Beiler JS, King TS et al.  Vapor Rub, Petrolatum, and No Treatment for Children With Nocturnal Cough and Cold Symptoms.  J. Pediatr. 2010;126:1092-1099.

Khine H, Weiss D, Graber N et al.  A Cluster of Children With Seizures Caused by Camphor Poisoning.  J Pediatr. 2009;123:1269-1272.