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Vicks for Baby? Is it safe?

Vicks on baby feet

My nine-month-old has her first cold and I can’t stand to see her like this! I asked my mom for advice and she told me to cover [my daughter’s] feet in Vicks VapoRub at night and then put socks on her. She said she used to do this with me and my cold would be gone in the morning. For the record, I don’t remember her doing this to me EVER, and I feel like this is something I would remember. I know that I’m not supposed to give [my daughter] cough syrup, but is this the same thing? I don’t even know how this is supposed to work.
– Ashley, via Facebook

This is something I’d never heard of before I became a parent, however, once my son had his first cold I heard from many, many mothers that I should put Vicks Vapor Rub on his feet at night to shorten his cold. I never tried this with my kids (or on myself) for a few reasons, but to be honest, I’ve never actually investigated whether or not this trick could work or is safe. Could Rubbing Vicks Vaporub be the answer?

Before we get into whether or not putting Vicks on your baby’s feet could vanquish their cold, we need to get some safety issues out of the way first.

Vicks VapoRub is manufactured by Procter and Gamble, so I spoke first with spokesperson Velvet Gogol Bennett about the safety of using Vicks VapoRub on an infant’s feet, which isn’t recommended on the product’s label. “We recommend Vicks VapoRub be used according to package instructions, which is to rub a thick layer on the throat and chest for cough suppression in adults and children 2 years and over. [Vicks VapoRub] should not be used in children under 2 years of age.”

While there is a version of Vicks marketed for use on children over three months of age, both the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) strongly advise against the use of any cough or cold medication for children under the age of six. While Vicks VapoRub isn’t ingested, there is some evidence that in its traditional form it can increase mucous production in the throat of infants as well as cause skin irritation. Before you use any OTC medication on your child it’s always a good idea to call your child’s doctor and double-check with them first.

Now that we know that using traditional Vicks VapoRub on a nine-month-old’s feet isn’t recommended by Procter and Gamble, the FDA or the AAP, let’s talk about older kids and if using Vicks on can actually shorten the duration of a cold.

“Using Vicks VapoRub on the feet may distract a child from their symptoms, but there’s no way for it to be more effective if applied there,” says pediatrician Dr. Clay Jones.  He says that the symptom relief benefits of Vicks comes from breathing in the vapors, and the feet are, obviously, further away from the nose than the chest and neck, where Vicks is supposed to be applied.

So what’s up with putting it on the feet?

“If you think about it, it feels good to have a foot massage, it’s relaxing, which may be where the perceived benefit is coming from, but it’s not from the product itself [Vicks VapoRub] or using it on the feet instead of on the chest as directed. You’d probably get the same effect if you used petroleum jelly or hand lotion to give your sick child a foot massage.”

While Dr. Jones says he advises parents of children in his practice against using any cough and cold medications, he says that cold symptoms can improve and worsen again on their own. “Cold symptoms are subjective, from one day to the next parents can’t (and shouldn’t try to) measure how much mucous their child’s runny nose produces, or where their child’s sore throat is on the Wong-Barker scale.  Sometimes a child’s symptoms actually improve as a part of the course of the virus and if we’ve tried a new treatment we can inaccurately attribute that improvement to the treatment.  And sometimes we think their symptoms are improving because we expect to see an improvement because of something we’ve done, when they’re actually the same as they were before.”

He notes that camphor, one of the ingredients in Vicks VapoRub can be toxic if ingested so it’s important to keep the product out of reach of children and that includes socks slathered in Vicks VapoRub soaked socks if your child is prone to putting things in their mouth.

“No matter where Vicks VapoRub is applied, there’s no way for it to shorten the duration of a cold,” says Pediatric Allergist and Immunologist Dr. David Stukus. He says that despite many attempts, there’s still no cure for the common cold. “Over the counter cough and cold medications do not shorten the duration of an illness, they only provide temporary symptom relief. Colds are caused by viruses and all of the symptoms we experience as the result of a cold (coughing, stuffy nose, sore throat) are all caused by our immune system’s response to that virus. Cold medications can make us feel better by relieving those symptoms, but they don’t do anything to shorten the duration of the illness.”

According to the experts, you can save your money on additional tubs of Vicks VapoRub this cold and flu season. A safer way to get the same result as the Vicks on the feet myth would be to give your baby a gentle foot massage before bed and then slip some comfy socks on her. And who doesn’t love a good foot rub?

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