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Topical rub eases kids' cold symptoms, study says
November 8th, 2010
12:01 AM ET

Topical rub eases kids' cold symptoms, study says

Although Vicks VapoRub is often used to fight colds and congestion, there has never been proof of how well it works. Now, new research reported in the journal Pediatrics finds, the combination of camphor, menthol and eucalyptus oils actually does ease cold symptoms and help children suffering from upper-respiratory infections sleep.

In the study,  funded by an unrestricted research grant from Procter & Gamble, makers of Vicks, researchers took 138 children between the ages of 2 and 11, with symptoms like cough, congestion, runny nose and restless sleep that lasted seven days or more. Only children with moderate cough and severe stuffy nose were eligible, and those were divided into three groups.

Some were treated with Vicks, some with a placebo consisting of petroleum jelly and others got no treatment at all. Parents were surveyed the day before treatment about the severity of their child's symptoms. That night, 30 minutes before bedtime, Vicks or petroleum jelly was rubbed onto the child's chest and neck. The next day parents were questioned about their child's symptoms overnight.

Children in all three groups got better, but those treated with the VapoRub saw the greatest improvement, and parents in this group also had improved sleep, the study found.

"The American Academy of Pediatrics says the currently available oral cough and cold medications are not effective for children and have the potential for side effects, " said Dr. Ian Paul, principal investigator and associate professor of pediatrics and public health sciences, Penn State College of Medicine. "This was based in part on some of the studies that we have conducted at Penn State. The current study shows that Vaporub is more effective than placebo."

Paul is on Procter & Gamble's advisory board but holds no stock in the company and will not profit financially.

Where's the line between research and marketing?

Twenty of the 44 children in the vapor rub group suffered mild side effects including  skin irritation and burning sensation of the eyes and nose. There were no side effects in the two other groups.

Dr. Jennifer Shu, a practicing pediatrician and CNNHealth's Living Well expert, uses Vicks for her family. "I have found that when used properly it can be a good option for parents who want to relieve some cold symptoms in their children. Parents get frustrated with the FDA recommendations not to use cold medicines in kids under the age of 4 because they are left with few options. Vicks is used topically on the skin, it's not ingested and is not included in these FDA guidelines."

Shu says when used properly, Vicks appears to be safe. But as with any product, parents need to read the instructions carefully and keep medicines out of the reach of children. Vicks VapoRub is not recommend for children under the age of 2.


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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.