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Cold and Flu Center

Vicks VapoRub Warnings

author image Keren Price
Keren Price began medical writing in 1997. Over the years, she has written for a wide range of clients, including Medtronic, Salix Pharmaceuticals, and General Mills. Prior to her medical writing career, Price was the managing editor of the Journal of Nutrition Education. She earned a Bachelor of Science in biopsychology from Tufts University and a Master's degree in nutrition from Penn State.
Vicks VapoRub Warnings
Sick woman in bed drinking a cup of tea Photo Credit eldinhoid/iStock/Getty Images

Vicks VapoRub is typically applied to the throat and chest to relieve cough due to the common cold. The ointment can also be applied to muscles and joints to relieve minor aches and pains. VapoRub's active ingredients include camphor, eucalyptus oil and menthol. Inactive ingredients include cedarleaf oil, nutmeg oil, petrolatum, thymol and turpentine oil. The ointment is generally safe when used as directed, but allergies or misuse of VapoRub can cause potentially serious side effects. VapoRub should never be ingested, since the ingredients -- especially camphor -- can be toxic.

Apply Only as Directed

VapoRub is meant to be applied to the skin, where it normally creates a mild warming or cooling sensation. While the ointment is not usually irritating to intact skin, there are rare reports of skin reactions. Isolated cases of an itchy, red rash -- known as contact dermatitis -- and loss of skin color at the site of ointment application have been reported. The manufacturer's directions note that VapoRub should not be applied to damaged or irritated skin, the skin around the eyes or within the nostrils. When using VapoRub for the first time, try applying it to a small area to see how your skin reacts before using it on a larger area.

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Don't Use on Children Younger Than 2 Years

The manufacturer's directions warn that Vicks VapoRub should not be used on children younger than age 2. According to the authors of an article published in the January 2009 issue of "Chest," an 18-month-old child developed difficulty breathing after her caregivers applied VapoRub under her nose for a cold. While VapoRub could not be determined as the cause of the child's symptoms, the authors speculated this was the case based on similar symptoms in other young children who had VapoRub applied near the nose. To explore their theory, they conducted some research studies in ferrets. When VapoRub was applied directly to the animals' airways, the ointment caused an increase in mucus production, which narrowed the size of the airways. However, direct application of VapoRub to the airways is not the same as applying the ointment externally. Additional research is needed.

Do Not Ingest

Vicks VapoRub should never be ingested as the ingredients, especially camphor, can cause life-threatening poisoning. Toxic effects of camphor ingestion typically occur within 5 to 120 minutes. Camphor initially stimulates the nervous system, which can lead to agitation in cases of mild poisoning. With more severe poisoning, one or more seizures may occur. A burning sensation in the mouth and stomach, as well as nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, are common. Other signs and symptoms associated with camphor poisoning ingestion include confusion, drowsiness, hallucinations, brain swelling, low blood pressure and rapid heartbeat. Camphor poisoning can cause respiratory failure and death. According to the American Association of Poison Control Centers, camphor exposure caused 81 reported cases of major or moderate toxicity and 1 death in 2014.

Emergency Treatment

Keep all medications -- even over-the-counter and topical preparations like Vicks VapoRub -- out of the reach of children. Seek emergency medical treatment for suspected Vicks VapoRub ingestion, especially if muscle twitching, seizures, nausea or vomiting occur. If possible, be prepared to report the person's age, weight, condition, the name of the product, the amount swallowed and when the ingestion occurred. Do not attempt to make the person vomit unless instructed to do so by a healthcare professional.

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