Vapor Rub Helps Kids' Cold Symptoms, Sleep

Vapor Rub Beats Petroleum Jelly & No Treatment for Cough, Congestion, Sleep Problems

Medically Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on November 08, 2010
From the WebMD Archives

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.

Except for runny noses, the vapor rub gave the greatest improvement, followed by the petroleum jelly. The no-treatment group reported the least amount of improvement.

Kids treated with the vapor rub and their parents had fewer problems sleeping than the other two groups.

"Our data suggest that the vapor rub provides systemic relief," says Paul. He reports having been a paid consultant for Procter and Gamble as well as other companies.

He can't pinpoint a specific improvement, such as the vapor rub kids coughing 25% less, for instance, but says the differences between the treatments were significant from a statistical viewpoint.

While vapor rub has been used for many years, studies on its effectiveness are scarce, Paul says. Menthol may work by improving the nasal sensation of airflow in congested kids and adults, according to some other research. Those in the vapor rub group did have the most side effects, such as skin rash or burning, with 46% of parents reporting them. "My sense is, it couldn't have been all that severe," Paul says of the side effects, "if they slept better."

Children's Cold Remedies: Second Opinion

"Parents are in a quandary right now," says Dennis Woo, MD, an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of California Los Angeles David Geffen School of Medicine and former chair of pediatrics at the Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center and Orthopaedic Hospital, referring to the move away from OTC cold remedies for young children.

"I would describe it as interesting," Woo says of the vapor rub study results, "something to be aware of."

He does not typically recommend vapor rub, he says, and the study probably won't sway him to start. He cautions parents who may try vapor rub that the study only looked at children ages 2 and up. (Vicks' product information specifies VapoRub is for use in those 2 and up.)

When parents ask what they can do for their children's cold remedies, Woo points out that tea with honey has some research backing it, but not to give honey to children under 1 year, as they are at risk for botulism, a potentially serious food poisoning.

Show Sources


Ian M. Paul, MD, associate professor of pediatrics and public health science, Penn State College of Medicine, Hershey; paid consultant for Consumer Products Healthcare Association, McNeil Consumer Health Inc., the Procter and Gamble Company, Reckitt Benckiser Healthcare International Ltd. and Novartis Consumer Health Inc.

Paul, I. Pediatrics, December 2010, vol 126.

Dennis Woo, MD,  associate professor of pediatrics, University of California Los Angeles David Geffen School of Medicine; former chair of pediatrics, Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center  & Orthopaedic Hospital, Santa Monica, Calif.

Vicks web site.

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