Is Vicks Vapor Rub Safe for My Baby's Feet?

Medically reviewed by Karen Richardson Gill, MD on January 29, 2016Written by Chaunie Brusie, RN, BSN on January 29, 2016
Vicks for Baby

When I first heard about the Vicks VapoRub trick for stopping a child's cough, I thought it must just be an old wives' tale.

Something as simple as rubbing some Vicks on your kid’s feet and then slapping on some socks would never actually work, right?

I was happily proven wrong when I tried the trick out of desperation one night. All my children had horrible coughs at the time.

I pulled out our handy tub of vapor rub, then haphazardly rubbed a glob of it on my kids’ feet. They giggled because I inadvertently tickled their feet in the process. I then pulled out some old socks from their drawer and pulled the socks over their now gooey feet.

I waited and…magic!

It actually worked. I can't tell you if it was a coincidence, a placebo, or just plain magic. But applying Vicks VapoRub and then socks to my kid’s feet whenever they are suffering from coughing and congestion seems to significantly reduce their coughing.

I admit that I really hate to give my children medication, especially cough medications that carry a lot of risk. But when it's 2 a.m. and your kid won't stop coughing, it's time to take action. I like this trick because it seems to work well, and I don't have to worry about any harmful medication.

But then comes the big question: Is Vicks VapoRub safe for babies? Unfortunately, the answer is no. But if your kids are over age 2, Vicks might be a lifesaver.

The Benefits

When it comes to Vicks VapoRub, I have both good news and bad news.

The good news? A study published in the journal Pediatrics and funded by a grant from Proctor and Gamble found that Vicks VapoRub may be an effective remedy for kids’ cold symptoms. It reports that the rub’s combination of camphor, menthol, and eucalyptus oils can relieve symptoms and improve sleep in children with upper respiratory infections. Unfortunately, this only applies to kids over age 2. Vicks is not safe for infants. The study also found that almost half the children treated with VapoRub had minor side effects.

The other bad news is that AAP is basing its claim on only one study. It found that applying Vicks to the chest areas of children significantly helped ease symptoms compared to doing nothing at all, or just rubbing petroleum on the kids.

Despite the questionable nature of the study, I'm still a believer because I've definitely applied Vicks VapoRub to my own kids and seen it works its magic.

The Problem

The unfortunate news is that the AAP can only safely recommend Vicks for children starting at age 2.

And even more unfortunately, that famous study that showed how great and safe Vicks was came along after a study published in the journal Chest suggested Vicks doesn’t work. It also said it might be dangerous for infants and children.

The study claimed that Vicks only tricks the brain into thinking airways are open, but it doesn’t actually get rid of any congestion.
If your kids are under age 2, ask your pediatrician about alternative ways to clear up coughing and congestion.

The Takeaway

When it comes to keeping your baby healthy, it's never worth the risk to apply medications that aren't 100 percent safe. If your baby is under the age of 2, you should never apply Vicks to their chest, nose, feet, or elsewhere.

You could try the special nonmedicated version of its famous vapor rub for babies 3 months and older. The blend is dubbed as a "soothing ointment" that contains fragrances of eucalyptus, rosemary, and lavender. These have been associated with relaxation. So at the very least, it might help soothe a fussy baby to sleep.

Another option is to release a soothing power into the air. Vicks offers several different types of vaporizers and humidifiers. Use these to release the scent of menthol to soothe and ease congestion for your baby.

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