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Cold, Flu, & Cough Health Center

Vicks VapoRub Misuse May Hurt Kids

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

To find out whether Vicks VapoRub might possibly harm airways, Rubin and colleagues performed a series of experiments on ferrets, whose airway anatomy and biology resemble that of humans. The experiments suggested that Vicks VapoRub could possibly act as an irritant causing mucus to block airways.

How convincing are the studies? WebMD asked Daniel Craven, MD, a pediatric lung specialist at University Hospitals Case Medical Centers Rainbow Babies and Children's Hospital, Cleveland.

"Dr. Rubin is an established expert in this field, and what they found lends support to looking at this further," Craven tells WebMD. "By itself, though, this finding isn't very concerning. If there are harmful effects from Vicks VapoRub, they probably are mild and only seen in certain situations with intense exposure of the airways under conditions where the airways are already compromised."

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.

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