Vicks VapoRub - one of the most popular and trusted over-the-counter remedies against cough and cold for over half a century - can actually be not safe for infants and young children, according to a new study.
Research published on Tuesday by the American College of Chest Physicians has discovered that Vicks may cause "serious respiratory distress" on children under two years of age. Scientists reported that the menthol-based ointment causes clogging and swelling of a young child's airways by increasing mucus production and slowing its removal. "Infants have airways that are much narrower than those of adults, so any increase in mucus or inflammation can narrow them more severely," said Dr Bruce Rubin, vice chair of pediatric pulmonology at Wake Forest University Medical Center in Winston-Salem, N.C., and lead author of the study, "I recommend never putting Vicks in, or under, the nose of anybody - adult or child." Instead, the expert recommended saltwater, nasal saline drops, chicken soup and warm drinks, adding that cough and cold medicines as well as decongestants are not good for small kids.
The study was launched after Dr. Rubin treated an 18-month-old girl with severe upper respiratory infection after Vicks has been applied directly under her nose, contrary to label warnings. Doctor has seen a lot of difficult cases of respiratory problems, but according to his words he had never encountered anything like this case. So after this first experience Rubin decided to see if there had been other cases similar to this one. "We encountered a few others that appeared to develop problems after using Vicks VapoRub," he said. To confirm that the menthol-containing rub was causing the patient's respiratory problems the experts decided to test the product on ferrets and conducted few experiments. The animals were chosen because they have an airway anatomy and cellular composition similar to humans.The tests were conducted on healthy ferrets that had tracheal inflammation (simulating a person with a chest infection) that measured the effects of Vicks on mucus secretion and buildup in the airways, and fluid buildup in the lungs. A high dose of VapoRub was added to their windpipes and the results showed that Vicks exposure increased mucus secretion. "Those windpipes produced 63% more mucus than windpipe specimens that had not been incubated with VapoRub," Rubin reported. The ability to clear mucus was reduced by 36 percent.
Vicks manufacturer Procter & Gamble reacted to the study, saying that the product "has a long-standing history of being safe and effective when used according to the package directions." The safety and efficacy of Vicks products has been demonstrated in hundreds of human clinical tests, which included thousands of infants and children up to 12 years. Crystal Harrell, P&G spokeswoman said that product's label already says that it cannot be used in children under two years of age. The label also clearly states that the ointment should not be used inside the nostrils but should be rubbed on the chest or throat. Over the past five years more than 1 billion jars of Vicks VapoRub have been sold and just less than three negative effects were reported per million jars sold. Harrell said that even those effects were mild and self-resolving, due to rubbing of the skin, and had nothing to do with respiratory problems.
Despite of this, parents still continue to buy and use the ointment on their infant children. They probably have no idea of the risks they are putting their children into as most of them do not even bother to read the warning instructions." Parents should consult with a physician before administering any over-the-counter medicine to infants and young children. Furthermore, over-the-counter cough and cold medicines can be harmful for infants and young children younger than 4 years old and are, therefore, not recommended," says Dr. James A. L. Mathers Jr., president of the American College of Chest Physicians.
So now we need to ask one last question - how convincing is the research? Is there a big risk using Vicks VapoRub or the risk is worth the product's benefit? Experts suggest that the active ingredients of the product do not improve air flow in people with nasal congestion. But there is a benefit, Rubin says, "Vicks is not bad. It does what it is meant to do: It gives the brain the sensation of relief of stuffiness, menthol triggers specific cold receptors in the nose and bronchial tubes. That is why it has been added to cigarettes called things like Kool. If you can't sleep because you are so congested, and put it on your chest, it makes you feel better. It doesn't open things up -- but for most kids, it doesn't plug things up, either."
The findings were published in the January issue of the journal Chest.