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A New Warning about Vicks VapoRub

Vicks VapoRub

If you're like me (and probably most Moms), you've got a stash of Vicks in your medicine cabinet ready to rub on congested little chests. So when this headline came across my desk, "Popular Cold and Cough Treatment May Create Respiratory Distress in Young Children," and I saw that it was referring to Vicks VapoRub, my stomach sank. I love everything about the minty, mentholated stuff, and so does my 2-year-old son.

Fortunately, I happen to cover health for Parenting, so I had the opportunity to speak directly with one of the study's authors to get to the bottom of the findings, which appears in the latest issue of the journal Chest. Here's the scoop, from Bruce Rubin, M.D., professor and vice chair of pediatrics at Wake Forest University School of Medicine:

The ingredients in Vicks VapoRub can irritate the airways and increase mucus production. The effect isn't huge, says Dr. Rubin, but it can be significant in infants and young children (under 2) who have very small airways to begin with. And when those pipes are already inflamed from a cold or other infection, a little bit of extra inflammation and mucus may narrow them quickly and severely.

In fact, the researchers launched the study after an 18-month-old girl came to their ER with unexplained respiratory distress. After doctors could find no usual cause (like pneumonia or asthma), they discovered that her grandparents had placed a dab of Vicks under her nose and noticed that her symptoms quickly worsened after that. Since then, they've seen three additional young children with the same reaction.

Does this mean we have to toss our tubs? Not necessarily. The study findings actually support the recommended use: Don't use it for kids under 2 and never place it directly under the nose. Rubbing it on the chest of older kids (or yourself) is the safest way to go, and can certainly bring some sense of relief. The reason? The menthol vapors actually trigger cold receptors in the nose, which tricks the body into thinking you're breathing easier, and that sensation can make anyone feel calmer and more comfortable.

Need more advice for comforting kids during cold season?

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