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Vapor Rub Helps Kids' Cold Symptoms, Sleep

Vapor Rub Beats Petroleum Jelly & No Treatment for Cough, Congestion, Sleep Problems
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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Nov. 9, 2010 -- The home remedy your mother probably gave you for upper respiratory infections as a kid works, according to a new study.

In a comparison study of vapor rub, petroleum jelly, or no treatment, the vapor rub won in helping to relieve symptoms of congestion and coughing while making it easier to sleep for kids and parents.

"A vapor rub containing camphor, menthol, and eucalyptus oil provides kids 2 years old and up with some relief from cough and congestion and helps them sleep better," researcher Ian M. Paul, MD, associate professor of pediatrics and public health science at Penn State College of Medicine in Hershey, tells WebMD.

The study is published in the journal Pediatrics.

The study was funded by an unrestricted grant from Procter and Gamble, which makes Vicks VapoRub, the product used in the study. The researchers were free to publish the study results regardless of how the research turned out.

Parents of young children are left with few options when coughs and colds strike, as the FDA in January 2008 issued a public health advisory saying children younger than 2 should not be given cold medicines because of potentially serious side effects. The American Academy of Pediatric says that over-the-counter cough and cold medicines do not work for kids less than 6 years old and in some cases may pose a health risk.

Vapor Rub vs. Petroleum Jelly

Paul and his colleagues assigned 138 children with upper respiratory infections, ages 2 to 11, to one of three groups:

  • The vapor rub group used Vicks, which has 4.8% camphor, 2.6% menthol, and 1.2% eucalyptus oil.
  • The petroleum jelly group used Equate 100% pure white petroleum jelly.
  • No treatment.

Parents answered questions on two consecutive days about their child's symptoms -- before the treatment and the morning after.

On the treatment night, parents applied the products 30 minutes before their children's bedtimes. To reduce the chances parents would easily tell they were using the vapor rub, due to its distinctive odor, those in both treatment groups first opened a cup filled with vapor rub and applied it between their upper lip and nose before opening their child's treatment, so they smelled the vapor rub regardless of which treatment they then gave their child.

Parents were told to apply the vapor rub or petroleum jelly to their child's upper chest and neck area and to massage the ointment in for one minute. Kids were told not to tell their parents if the treatment had an odor or not.

Children's Cold Remedies: Results

Parents reported the next day on their child's cough (frequency, duration, severity), congestion, their child's ability to sleep, and their own ability to sleep and not be disturbed by their kids' coughing and other symptoms.

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