Back in 2002 when My Big Fat Greek Wedding hit the theaters, audiences learned about Chicago's Greek community and the healing powers of Windex. My parents laughed, because their parents also had a magical remedy for everything: Vicks Vaporub.
Having a cough or cold meant a thick layer of the mystical ointment on your chest and neck, with a towel tucked around to hold in the heat, although I cannot completely rule-out an anti-sheet-staining effect. Family lore includes the night my maternal grandmother stubbed her toe, eventually found to be broken. Her husband, the pharmacist, told her to put some Vicks on it. Such healing powers!
As time went on, we grew up and moved onto other remedies for our colds (like Nyquil, another product from the Vicks' people). Proper clinical studies showed more risk than benefit from many of hese drugs in young children. What should tired, cranky parents with sick, cranky children do?Vapor Rub, Petrolatum, and No Treatment for Children With Nocturnal Cough and Cold Symptoms. Paul et al. Pediatrics 2010: 126
The authors did a trial comparing VapoRub, its petrolatum base, and no treatment in children seeking treatment for cough and cold symptoms. Children could not have used topical or systemic cold remedies (including honey!) the night before. A validated symptom survey was administered after obtaining informed consent; the parents completed it again the night after the test treatment.
The most creative part of the study involved participant blinding. Investigators gave parents an opaque bag containing a glass specimen cup filled with the assigned treatment, so the treating physician remained masked to study group. At bedtime, parents opened the bag and found either an empty cup or a grease-filled cup. Parents in the no treatment group obviously knew their assignment. Those who found ointment also has a small packet of VapoRub to apply under their nose before massaging the treatment onto their child. The investigators hoped this would mask the treatment from parents. Even with all of these efforts, more than 80% of parents in each of the ointment groups correctly identified the treatment assigned to their child.
So what happened? All measures of symptoms significantly improved with the VapoRub. Of course, symptom relief came with side effects including mild skin irritation. No neurologic issues arose, a particular concern with camphor-containing agents. The authors conclude that topical VapoRub may be helpful for improving cough and cold symptoms in children at least 2 years of age.
Vicks VapoRub is more than my grandparents' placebo; it is evidence-based medicine!
What will be next - Windex for acne?