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Vicks VapoRub

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The common cold and its associated cough are one of the the banes of humanity. While relatively easy to get over, they can cause you to feel run down, and probably worst of all, block up your nose making you sound like a talking elephant with its trunk tied in a reef knot - and just as grumpy.

So, how does one get over these symptoms? Various remedies have been suggested over the years, but one of the best for alleviating that clogged-up feeling is 'Vicks VapoRub', a sort of sticky menthol decongestant ointment that you apply to your chest and neck (and sometimes under the nose), usually before bed.

Vicks VapoRub1 is relatively unique as it comes in a soothingly blue-coloured plastic jar (although there are clones on the market - which are, to be honest, just as good), containing about 50 grams of the clear, almost glue-like stuff. This will last you a good long time; in fact, jars of VapoRub have been known to remain in bathroom cabinets for decades (hidden behind unused sunscreen and cotton wool), and still to be just as effective as the day they were bought.

How Does It Work?

The ingredients act upon the nasal passages, helping to clear the airways and promote breathing. By rubbing it onto the chest and neck, the heat of the body evaporates the salve, the vapours then reaching the nose and being inhaled. If applied before going to bed, VapoRub can help clear the nose and suppress coughing so as to get a better night's sleep, both for you and your partner, as it can help prevent cold-related snoring.

VapoRub can also be added to hot water, where it melts, the steam from this being inhaled. You can be quite a sight however, stooped over a bowl of steaming water, a towel over your head, your nose running and your eyes red-rimmed from the fumes.

VapoRub is also useful in alleviating cramp or muscle soreness when rubbed into the afflicted area. And because you can rub it on, it's great for treating blocked noses in children, as you don't have to try and get them to take pills or any other medicines, and it usually helps them get some rest (which means they aren't such grumpy little so-and-sos in the morning2).

NB: It is very important that Vicks VapoRub is not used on children under the age of six months, as the camphor in it exceeds the recommended dosage for infants. Vicks have 'BabyRub' available for the three months-plus age group, but if your baby is ill it is suggested you seek further advice from your family doctor.


The ingredients of VapoRub are as follows3:


  • Camphor 4.8% (cough suppressant and topical analgesic)
  • Eucalyptus oil 1.2% (cough suppressant)
  • Menthol 2.6% (cough suppressant and topical analgesic)


  • Cedarleaf oil
  • Nutmeg oil
  • Special petrolatum
  • Thymol
  • Turpentine oil

It has never really been understood why the strange strong-smelling concoction actually works in opening the nasal passages, and apart from the funny tingling, very mild burning sensation that you get when you apply it to your skin, it is almost a wonderdrug!

Vicks VapoRub is one of my very best friends. You might think that I'm only saying that because I'm currently in the throes of bronchitis. You'd probably even be right. Regardless, Vicks VapoRub is pretty darned cool.
- an h2g2 Researcher

NB: It is vital that you do not use Vicks VapoRub if you have known allergies to any of its ingredients.

Other Uses

As with many other drugs and medications, Vicks VapoRub has been found to have some other interesting uses. The amorous at heart have been known to use the salve on certain parts of the body to provoke sensations of sexual pleasure, and if you're that way inclined, be warned. While VapoRub does cause feelings of tingling and heat to the skin, it's not advisable to apply it to certain parts of the anatomy. As one h2g2 Researcher recalls:

I always remember an acquaintance of mine, who was a bit of the 'Jack the Lad' and always had considerable success in bedding the most attractive female students who came to work with us. He once confused Vicks VapoRub for Petroleum Jelly, which comes in a similarly coloured jar. Needless to say, that girlfriend never spoke to him again!
Due to these properties, VapoRub is also used in an altogether-too-common prank that is often undertaken by the male players of team sports like football. This is to apply a thick coating of VapoRub4 to a teammate's underwear, or jockstrap, before they put it on. The resulting slow-acting release of heat, and then pain, to the nether regions when the underwear is slid on is undeniably amusing - as long as you're not the victim!

Due to the strong smell that Vicks VapoRub has, another use for it is to disguise bad smells by dabbing some under the nose. This way, instead of smelling whatever it is you don't want to smell, you get the strong waft of eucalpytus and menthol. Police officers and other crime professionals have been known to do this before investigating human remains, and in the film Silence of the Lambs FBI Agent Clarice Starling dabs some of the salve under her nose before entering a morgue containing the body of a murder victim.

Who Invented It?

VapoRub was created in the 1880s by Lunsford Richardson, a pharmacist from Selma, North Carolina, USA. The original salve was designed with the idea that menthol (at the time, a little-known import from Japan) and eucalyptus oil would be able to clear sinuses blocked by the symptoms of the common cold.

When Richardson later moved to Greensboro, North Carolina, he opened the Richardson and Farris Drug Store on South Elm Street. From there he began marketing the product as Vicks VapoRub, so named in honour of his brother-in-law, Dr Joshua Vick. The 'Vicks Chemical Company' was thus born, and our noses routinely cleared so we could sniff the heady scent of chicken soup, the other integral remedy for a nasty cold.

Please Note: h2g2 is not a definitive medical resource. If you have any health concerns you must always seek advice from your local GP. You can also visit NHS Direct or BBC Health Conditions.

1Known as 'Wick VapoRub' in Germany, there's no substantial evidence as to why the V was replaced with a W, except perhaps due to pronunciation differences.2Mind you, this factor applies to adults too.3Don't try and reproduce the stuff at home, you could end up making something quite different - possibly akin to the chemical bombs used in the trenches of the First World War.4This is if the players just want to tease. To inflict more pain, other forms of muscle-soothing salves such as Deep Heat or Fiery Jack are used. Ouch!

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