When I had a cold as a child, my mother put a little Vicks VapoRub under my nose to help me breathe more easily. Does this really work?

Answer From Jay L. Hoecker, M.D.

No. Vicks VapoRub doesn't clear up congestion in the nose. But its strong menthol odor may trick your brain. So you might feel like you're breathing through an unclogged nose.

Vicks VapoRub is an ointment that's rubbed on the throat and chest to relieve a cough.

It's unsafe for any use in children under 2 years old. In adults and children age 2 and older, use it only on the neck and chest to ease coughing during a cold.

Vicks VapoRub is made of ingredients such as camphor, eucalyptus oil and menthol. Camphor also is one of the main ingredients in other medicines used on the skin, such as Campho-Phenique and Bengay.

Swallowing a few teaspoons of camphor can cause deadly poisoning in toddlers.

When placed on the skin, camphor can be absorbed through mucous membranes or broken skin. This also can be toxic. That's why you should never put VapoRub in or around the nostrils — especially a small child's nostrils.

And if VapoRub gets in the eyes, it can injure the clear outer layer, called the cornea.

You can try other treatments to relieve a stuffy nose during a cold.

Decongestant tablets sold without a prescription can be used in people age 12 and older. These medicines narrow blood vessels in the tissue that lines the inside of the nose. That can lead to less swelling in the nasal passages.

Children under 12 may get relief from remedies such as:

  • Saline nose drops, sprays or rinses — such as with a neti pot — to thin mucus.
  • A rubber-bulb syringe to remove mucus.
  • A cool-mist humidifier to ease congestion.

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Dec. 02, 2023 See more Expert Answers