My Grandma's Cure-All

Feb 02 2011 Published by under Journal Club

The Magic of Windex (Click for Source)

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!

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What will be next - Windex for acne?

6 responses so far

  • Sherri Petersen says:

    My mom, a retired nurse, swore by "baby" aspirin, the organe magic cure all pills that not only relieved pain from headaches and muscle aches, but crushed and applied to a bee sting would stop the throbbing immediately. Now we are advised not to give kids aspirin at all, but at that time I would guess that if we dropped down dead we could have made our own chalk outline from all the orange pills we had digested! BTW: Vics works great on chapped lips!

  • LadyLobo says:

    My grandmother swears by the stuff!! But in my family we dont just use it for coughs.
    Run into a table? Put Vicks on it cause it will prevent bruising
    Cut open you leg cause you slipped while running up the stairs? Put Vicks on it.
    The ultimate story is when my cousin, who at the time was around 6, jumped off his bunk bed in an attempt to be Superman. To landed badly on his leg which was then buried under a thick coat of Vaprorub before being taken to the hospital. (Grandma was a nurse and she thought it was broken). The doctor refused to Xray the leg at first because there was little swelling. After some harassment, the leg was Xrayed and was definitely broken.

    So yeah, Vicks for the win.

  • Tracey S says:

    My cure-all for internal ailment is Sriracha sauce. My theory is the spiciness drives the germs out. It's especially effective for colds when administered via 500 cc of beef pho. Then you get the hot steam AND spice to clear out the sinuses, plus the nourishing broth. I wouldn't try Sriracha on external wounds though, unless I wanted to cauterize them.

  • seth says:

    Still have memories that as a teenager I vicked my chest to shift a cold. Without washing hands had a pee ! The agony shifted the cold and the aversion therapy has stopped me ever using it since .

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