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Vicks VapoRub Misuse May Hurt Kids

18-Month-Old Girl Hospitalized After Vicks VapoRub Put Under Her Nose

Vicks VapoRub Studies continued...

WebMD also sought the opinion of Ian M. Paul, MD, director of pediatric clinical research at Penn State University. Paul is an expert in over-the-counter cough and cold medicines and is conducting a study of Vicks VapoRub under an unrestricted grant from Procter & Gamble.

"I am on record as being highly critical of cough and cold medicines ... but the [Rubin] case report is "at best incomplete and at worst irresponsible," Paul tells WebMD. "Those symptoms they present are much more likely to be caused by RSV [respiratory syncytial virus]. This child had the classic symptoms of RSV bronchiolitis."

David Bernens, a spokesman for Vicks VapoRub maker Procter & Gamble, says the company receives about three adverse-event reports -- mostly involving skin irritation -- for every million units of Vicks VapoRub sold.

"We take any kind of safety concern very seriously," Bernens tells WebMD. "We have multiple clinical studies, with more than a thousand children age 1 month to 12 years old, that have demonstrated both the safety and efficacy of the Vicks VapoRub product. So we have come to different conclusions than Dr. Rubin."

Risks vs. Benefits

Is any risk from Vicks VapoRub worth the product's benefit? Rubin and Craven point to studies that suggest the active ingredients of the product do not improve air flow in people with nasal congestion. But there is a benefit, Rubin says.

"Vicks is not bad. It does what it is meant to do: It gives the brain the sensation of relief of stuffiness," he says. "Menthol triggers specific cold receptors in the nose and bronchial tubes. That is why it has been added to cigarettes called things like Kool. If you can't sleep because you are so congested, and put it on your chest, it makes you feel better. It doesn't open things up -- but for most kids, it doesn't plug things up, either."

Paul says the reason he's studying Vick's VapoRub is that there's little publicly available scientific data on how well it works for kids with colds or bronchitis. While Procter & Gamble is funding the study, Paul insists that the grant is unrestricted, and that he will publish the results within two years even if they show the product has no efficacy.

Craven notes that Vicks VapoRub has been around for more than a century and reports of adverse events remain few.

"This product has been used for years and years and years and there have not been a lot of reports of it causing problems," he says. "That lowers the chances that it could cause respiratory failure. But the Rubin study does show some things that merit further investigation to see if we should be more careful in cautioning people against using it in some circumstances."

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