Vicks VapoRub may harm breathing in young children

January 21, 2009

Vicks VapoRub, a popular treatment choice for cough symptoms and congestion, may actually cause respiratory harm in infants and small children.

Vicks VapoRub, a popular treatment choice for cough symptoms and congestion, may actually cause respiratory harm in infants and small children, according to an animal study published in the January issue of Chest.

Researchers from Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center report that the product may stimulate mucus production and airway inflammation, which can severely affect the breathing of infants or young children because of their smaller airways.

“The ingredients in Vicks can be irritants, causing the body to produce more mucus to protect the airway,” stated Bruce K. Rubin, MD, lead study author. The study follows an incident where Rubin and colleagues administered care to an 18-month-old girl in respiratory distress, after the salve was placed under her nostrils to relieve symptoms of an upper respiratory infection.

Researchers set out to measure Vicks’ effect on ferrets, which have airway anatomy comparable to humans. Healthy ferrets and ferrets with tracheal inflammation (simulating a child with a chest infection) underwent tests to analyze the effects of Vicks on mucus secretion and airway buildup, as well as fluid buildup in the lungs. Findings indicated that Vicks use increased mucus secretion in normal and inflamed airways. Further, the studies found that product exposure lowered the rate by which mucus left the trachea.

The findings support current product labeling, which indicates the product should not be used on children under 2 years. “I recommend never putting Vicks in, or under, the nose of anybody--adult or child,” Rubin said in a statement. “I also would follow the directions and never use it at all on children under age 2."