Vapor rub really works

February 1, 2011

A vapor rub combination of camphor, menthol, and eucalyptus oils provides more relief of nighttime cough, congestion, and sleeping difficulties associated with an upper respiratory tract infection than petrolatum treatment or no treatment.

A vapor rub (VR) combination of camphor, menthol, and eucalyptus oils provides more relief of nighttime cough, congestion, and sleeping difficulties associated with an upper respiratory tract infection (URI) than petrolatum ointment or no treatment, according to a comparative trial.

Investigators recruited 2- to 11-year-old patients with cough, congestion, and rhinorrhea attributable to a URI lasting 7 days or longer. Each of 138 children was assigned to receive the VR ointment, petrolatum ointment, or no treatment for the single-night study. The night before the study, parents scored the severity of the symptoms their child was experiencing and then completed a similar assessment the morning after the study.

Symptoms in all 3 groups improved the second night compared with the first, but the degree of improvement varied significantly among the 3 groups. Vapor rub yielded the greatest improvement in all outcomes (except for rhinorrhea) followed by petrolatum, whereas the control group consistently showed the least amount of improvement. Parents indicated that children treated with VR were significantly more able to sleep than were children who received petrolatum or no treatment. Parents also rated their own ability to sleep as significantly better than did parents whose children received petrolatum or no treatment.

Commentary

This study was done by the same group of investigators who in 2007 reported the beneficial effect of buckwheat honey on cough compared with both dextromethorphan and no treatment in 2- to 18-year-old children with URIs (Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2007;161[12]:1140-1146). Both studies show small but significant effects of these traditional remedies. Neither vapor rub nor honey is a cure for the common cold, but they both offer parents low-risk, low-cost methods to provide some comfort to their children and to improve sleep for everyone in the house. And the studies show, once again, that your mother or grandmother was right all along.

-Michael Burke, MD