Medicine for the Outdoors
Medicine for the Outdoors

Dr. Paul Auerbach is the world's leading outdoor health expert. His blog offers tips on outdoor safety and advice on how to handle wilderness emergencies.

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Vicks VapoRub - A Caution

Remember when you were a child with a cold, and your mother rubbed Vicks VapoRub on your chest to help you breathe easier? That might not have been such a hot idea. We all have our favorite home remedies, which we carry with us into the backcountry. Some of them are commonly widely used, and others are unique to our own particular upbringing and brand of medicine. I know that more than a few techniques I learned as a youth are not only not helpful, but probably harmful. One in particular has recently been debunked, at least in ferrets...

Drs. Juan Carlos Abanses, Shinobu Arima, and Bruce Rubin of Wake Forest University School of Medicine recently published an article in which they noted that Vicks VapoRub induced acute inflammation in the airways of ferrets when applied in a manner similar to that sometimes used in humans, where the substance is placed on the body in a location where it can be inhaled. They concluded that this might lead to obstruction of small airways with mucus and also increased resistance in the nasal passages. This is hardly what would be beneficial to someone seeking to relieve chest congestion or to ease breathing. The reason that they did their experiments is because they had cared for a toddler in whom severe respiratory distress developed after Vicks VapoRub was applied directly under the child's nose.

I have sometimes used warm mist inhalation to help relieve severe coughing and bronchial irritation. I have also observed persons who suffered steam burns because they attempted to do the same thing with hot vapors released from a teapot.

When I was a medical student, some professors advised the application of ichthammol ointment (a brownish black concoction that is actually ammonium bituminosulfonate, or sulfonated shale oil) to the surface of a boil, in order to soften it and draw it to a "head." Not only did this practice not work, it probably resulted in worse infections in those individuals who continued to apply the ointment after the abscesses ruptured.

Tincture of green soap is recommended by some to treat poison ivy/oak/sumac, and everyone knows someone who recommends urinating on jellyfish stings. The literature of outdoor medicine is replete with folk remedies and well-intentioned parental recommendations. It's healthy to subject these to scrutiny, to study them, and to prove or disprove their usefulness.

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About the Author

Dr. Paul S. Auerbach is the world’s leading authority on wilderness medicine.