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Whenever I get a whiff of a vapor rub somewhere, it takes me back to my childhood bed, sick with a bad cold or flu, tucked into cotton sheets, a thick coating of vapor rub over my chest and neck, periodic sips of warm lemon-water with honey to calm the cough, and plenty of TLC. What was the power of the vapor rub?
My mom would bring a big pot of water to a simmer, drop a big blob of the vapor rub into it, and steady me while I stood on a stool with a large towel over my head, breathing in the aromatic steam.
I remember I always felt better after inhaling those fumes. Yet I’ve often wondered if there was any clinical evidence for their effectiveness in relieving congestion, or if the strong aroma and the rituals around being sick in my family worked as placebos—the “momcare” effect.
Studies suggest that the cooling sensation triggered when body heat vaporizes and when menthol fumes hit our nostrils tricks our brains into thinking the congestion has lessened and our airflow has improved. In fact, they haven't.
So what's the harm then, if a vapor rub makes you feel better in the end.
The active ingredients of some chest rubs, as well as in recipes for making your own—camphor, eucalyptus, and menthol—are natural.
Well, not necessarily. Be sure to check the labels of commercial chest rubs. You may find an ingredient noted as camphor (synthetic). You may also see an ingredient called petrolatum, the thick jelly-like substance that carries the oils and fragrances. It’s also called petroleum jelly, a by-product of oil refining.
Camphor for Children
Camphor ointments are FDA-approved ingredient in over-the-counter treatments such as vapor rubs. However, camphor itself is not in foods and very dangerous if swallowed. This is mainly an issue with children.
Camphor poisoning is actually a serious risk. "A review of national poison center data from 1990 through 2003 showed approximately 10,000 annual ingestion exposures to camphor-containing products." Even exposure to small amounts of camphor-containing products results in poisoning.
I'm not trying to alarm anyone but it's important to have all the information, especially if you have children. There have also been reports of vaporubs/vaposteams:
inflaming the airways,
damaging the eyes,
causing skin reactions,
causing liver toxicity,
and other harms
Although most of these adverse effects diminish or disappear after stopping use of the products and receiving medical care, you may want to reconsider your use of vaporubs, even the expensive “all natural” ones from the health-food store, or those you make yourself.
And as for the honey-with-lemon cough remedy, pediatricians have pronounced it as effective as over-the-counter and prescription cough medicines. However, research confirms a large placebo effect that makes studying cough remedies almost impossible, and also shows that just about anything people have been told will quell their coughing tends to work.
What Should You Do to Get Rid of a Cough Instead?
Pediatricians and other medical experts suggest treating mild, self-limiting respiratory illnesses with old-style momcare:
stay home from work if possible and lay low,
drink plenty of fluids (water, warm non caffeinated drinks are best),
humidify the air,
cough into your elbow and
wash your hands often to avoid infecting others.
I’ll stick with a pot of mom’s warm honey-and-lemon water. It's all natural! Keeps me hydrated and always works to ease my cough.
Margaret Boyles is a longtime contributor to The Old Farmer’s Almanac. She wrote for UNH Cooperative Extension, managed NH Outside, and contributes to various media covering environmental and human health issues. Read More from Margaret Boyles