Rumor has it rubbing the mentholated ointment on the bottom of your child's feet can stop a cough. But just how safe is this (clever!) DIY cure? 

By Bonnie Gibbs Vengrow
September 17, 2015
Young boy coughing
Credit: Shutterstock

Coughing is as inevitable as a change in season, even in the healthiest kids. But when a few days of coughing stretch into a week or two (or longer!), it's only natural to be concerned. Though you can never go wrong by calling your pediatrician—especially if your kiddo's cough lingers for 10 days or longer—you might also consider turning to your pantry or medicine cabinet for an at-home remedy.

One of the most popular DIY cures involves rubbing Vicks VapoRub on the bottom of your child's feet and chest at night, covering with a warm towel for 30 seconds, and repeating a few times. Though it sounds odd, some parents swear that come morning, the nagging cough is a distant memory. But is this magic balm really all that stands between your kid and a clean bill of health?

Not necessarily, say the experts. "The scent of menthol in Vicks VapoRub triggers cold receptors in your nose and upper airway, where you sense temperature and smell," explains Satya D. Narisety, M.D., a clinical assistant professor in the Department of Pediatric Allergy, Immunology and Infectious Diseases at Rutgers University. "It doesn't actually open up airways or break up mucous, but the menthol does trick your brain into thinking your airways are opening up and you're not so congested."

The key is making sure the menthol vapors can be inhaled, says Preeti Parikh, M.D., a board-certified pediatrician in private practice in New York City, assistant clinical professor in the Pediatrics Department at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, and an American Academy of Pediatrics fellow and spokesperson. While there's no harm in slathering VapoRub on the soles of the feet and wrapping them in a warm towel, the vapors have to travel farther in order to be inhaled. Instead, for maximum effectiveness, experts recommend massaging it onto your child's chest, where he can smell the menthol from a safe distance. (The camphor in VapoRub can cause seizures or other serious side effects if ingested, so always keep it away from your child's face, including directly under the nostrils. And only use the balm on children over the age of 2.)

Moreover, unlike the VapoRub-on-the-feet remedy, which has no supporting scientific evidence, there is research that suggests applying it to the chest is enough give your under-the-weather child some comfort. According to a 2010 study published in Pediatrics, applying VapoRub to the chest of children ages 2 to 11 offered symptomatic relief of their nocturnal cough and congestion and, ultimately, led to a better night's sleep. The balm may also provide some relief from coughs brought on by a viral infection, Dr. Narisety points out. "With a viral infection, the body will fight it off on its own; it will do what it's going to do," she says. "In that case, there's nothing wrong with putting something on that will make your child feel better. The VapoRub eases symptoms, like Tylenol does to reduce fever."

But VapoRub will only get a coughing kid so far. A cough is a symptom of a larger issue, so true relief will come once your pediatrician figures out the underlying problem and treats it accordingly, says Dr. Narisety. Seasonal allergies, inflammation, viral infections, or bacterial infections are just some of the possible culprits.

A call to your pediatrician is in order if:

  • the cough lasts longer than a few days with fever or a wet, productive cough;
  • your child has difficulty breathing;
  • the cough is interfering with sleep or activity or difficulty swallowing; or it's associated with any other symptom; or
  • your child is under 3 months of age.

"A cough is not always a bad thing and does not always need to be treated," Dr. Parikh says. "Many coughs after illnesses can linger up to four weeks."


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