Does Vicks VapoRub on Feet Relieve Coughing?

Netlore Archive: Folk remedy recommends Vicks on feet for colds

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This viral message circulating via email and social media claims that coughing can be stopped "100% of the time" by applying "Vicks Vapor Rub" (sic) to the bottoms of a sick child's feet and covering them with socks at bedtime.

Description: Home remedy
Circulating Since: 2007
Status: Anecdotal

Email text contributed by David C., March 26, 2007:

Subject: For Coughing
Sorry, no graphic for this one, and don't laugh, it works 100% of the time although the scientists at the Canada Research council (who discovered it) aren't sure why.
To stop nighttime coughing in a child (or adult as we found out personally), put Vicks Vapor Rub generously on the bottom of the feet at bedtime, then cover with socks.
Even persistent, heavy, deep coughing will stop in about 5 minutes and stay stopped for many, many hours of relief.
Works 100% of the time and is more effective in children than even very strong prescription cough medicines. In addition it is extremely soothing and comforting and they will sleep soundly.
I heard the head of the Canada Research Council describe these findings on the part of their scientists when they were investigating the effectiveness and usage of prescription cough medicines in children as compared to alternative therapies like accupressure. Just happened to tune in A.M. Radio and picked up this guy talking about why cough medicines in kids often do more harm than good due to the chemical makeup of these strong drugs so, I listened.
It was a surprising finding and found to be more effective than prescribed medicines for children at bedtime, in addition to have a soothing and calming effect on sick children who then went on to sleep soundly.
An adult friend tried it on herself when she had a very deep constant and persistent cough a few weeks ago and it worked 100%! She said that it felt like a warm blanket had enveloped her, coughing stopped in a few minutes and believe me, this was a deep, ( incredibly annoying!) every few seconds uncontrollable cough, and she slept cough-free for hours every night that she used it.
So, if you have grandchildren, pass it on. If you end up sick, try it yourself and you will be absolutely amazed by the effect.
What do you have to lose?


While not disproven, the above claims have neither been scientifically tested nor confirmed nor is there a generally accepted medical explanation for how smearing Vicks VapoRub on the soles of one's feet might possibly relieve a coughing fit. Some people who have tried it insist the treatment really works, but a smattering of anecdotal reports does not amount to proof.

"From the standpoint of traditional medicine," says pediatrician Vincent Iannelli, MD, "there is no good reason that rubbing Vicks VapoRub on a child's feet should help a cough. In fact, many studies show that over-the-counter cough medicines don't even help when you use them as they are intended.

"Why might it work?" he continues. "It could be that your child can still breathe the vapors, even if you put it on their feet. Or maybe the active ingredient, menthol, acts to dilate the blood vessels in the feet, and this triggers some reflex that quiets a cough. There are other reflexes that cause coughs like we often see when we clean the wax out of children's ears, so it is not unthinkable that there are others."

The Principle of "Counter-Irritation"

The remedy wouldn't have seemed so strange to doctors a hundred years ago, who often prescribed liniments and poultices containing mild irritants such as mustard, garlic, or camphor to the chest and to the soles of the feet to relieve symptoms of colds and whooping cough. Like Vicks VapoRub, the active ingredients of which include camphor, eucalyptus, and menthol, these preparations would have had the effect of stimulating blood flow to the skin. Cataloged under the heading of "counter-irritants" in early twentieth-century medical texts, such treatments were based on the principle that "internal morbid processes may at times be relieved by creating external irritations" (Horatio Charles Wood in Therapeutics: Its Principles and Practice, 1908).

To be sure, there was a vigorous debate over how counter-irritants actually worked. "One commonly offered explanation," wrote pharmacologist Horatio Wood at the time, "is that there is only a certain amount of blood in the body and that if the blood is drawn to one part there must be less in another part. Surely, however, the amount of blood drawn to the skin by a mustard plaster is too small sensibly to affect the general mass in the body. It is more probable that the phenomena of counter-irritation are the result of reflex disturbances of the vaso-motor nerves which influence the size of the blood vessels, or of the trophic nerves which directly affect nutrition."

Whatever the anatomical explanation, back in the day such treatments were liberally prescribed and believed to be effective. Dr. Alvin Wood Chase's embrocation for whooping cough, for example, consisted of equal parts oil of amber and spirits of hartshorn (ammonia). "Apply to the soles of the feet, and to the palms of the hands, morning, noon, and night," he advised in Dr. Chase's Recipes (1876).

In A Text-Book of Practical Medicine (1883), Dr. Felix von Niemeyer prescribed the following for croup: "The application of sinapisms [mustard plasters] to the calves of the legs and soles of the feet, repeated bathing of the hands and forearms in water as hot as the child can bear, the use of 'flying blisters' to the neck and chest, are recommended, partly to corroborate the action of the stimulants administered internally, and partly as a derivative from the larynx to the skin."

The 1909 edition of Johnson's First Aid Manual recommended the same.

Holistic and folk medicine

Even though such remedies have largely fallen out of favor among mainstream doctors, they have survived in the form of folk wisdom and we still find them touted in textbooks of holistic medicine. "A time-honored treatment for chest colds," writes Kathi Kemper in The Holistic Pediatrician, "is the mustard poultice. Mustard poultices apparently increase circulation to your child's chest, creating a soothing sense of warmth." A garlic or onion poultice can also be used, Kemper says, noting that some herbalists "recommend that the garlic poultice be placed over the soles of the feet to draw heat downward."

"Other folk remedies placed on the feet to draw the circulation downward," she continues, "are turpentine and camphor" — which, as it happens, are two of the active ingredients in Vicks VapoRub, which brings us full circle.

Judging from the volume of reader testimonials published by The People's Pharmacy authors Joe and Terry Graedon in their newspaper columns in recent years, putting Vicks on your feet is nothing short of a miracle cure. "I was looking for home remedies for coughs when I found your Website," wrote one correspondent. "I read about putting Vicks VapoRub on the soles of the feet. Within ten minutes of applying it, he was asleep without a cough. Thanks!"

"We can't explain how smearing Vicks on the soles of the feet could take away a cough," the Graedons replied, "but many others have told us it works. Be sure to put socks on him to protect the sheets."

A final word

While Vicks is surely harmless enough when used as directed, parents should be aware that applying it to children's feet as a cough remedy is not among the uses recommended by the manufacturer. To quote Dr. Iannelli: "As with other alternative treatments, herbal therapies, or simply using over-the-counter or prescription medicines 'off-label' or in a way that they weren't intended, parents should be aware that there can be consequences. Kids can have sensitive feet, and applying a cream or ointment that may act like an irritant could cause a rash that looks like athlete's foot. This rash, juvenile plantar dermatosis, is also commonly seen in kids who have sweaty feet or who don't change their socks often enough."

Caveat lector.

Sources and further reading:

  • Chase, Alvin Wood. Dr. Chases's Recipes: Or, Information for Everybody: An Invaluable Collection of About Eight Hundred Practicle Recipes for Merchants, Grocers, Saloon-Keepers, Physicians, Druggists (Etc.). R.A. Beal, 1888. P. 318.
  • Graedon, Joe and Terry. "The People's Pharmacy." King Features Syndicate, 12 December 2005.
  • Johnson's First Aid Manual. Johnson & Johnson, 1903. P. 86.
  • Kemper, Kathi. The Holistic Pediatrition: A Pediatricians Comprehensive Guide to Safe and Effective Therapies for the 25 Most Common Ailments of Infants, Children, and Adolescents. Haper Collins, 2002. P. 176.
  • Niemeyer, Felix von (tr. Humphreys). A Text-Book of Practical Medicine. D. Appleton and Co., 1883. P. 30.