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 because the ingredients, particularly camphor, can be toxic.
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Apply Only as Directed
VapoRub is meant to be applied to the skin, where it typically generates 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.
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 proven as the cause of the child's symptoms, the authors speculated this was the case based on similar symptoms in a few other young children who had VapoRub applied near the nose. To explore their theory, they conducted some experiments 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, seizures may occur. Other common symptoms include a burning sensation in the mouth and stomach, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Severe poisoning due to camphor ingestion can cause confusion, drowsiness, hallucinations, brain swelling, low blood pressure and a rapid heartbeat. Camphor poisoning may lead to respiratory failure and death. According to the American Association of Poison Control Centers, camphor exposure caused 81 reported cases of moderate or severe toxicity and 1 death in 2014.
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. Be prepared to report the person's age, weight, condition, the name of the product, the amount swallowed and when the ingestion occurred, if known. Do not attempt to make the person vomit unless instructed to do so by a healthcare professional.
Reviewed by: Tina M. St. John, M.D.