Does Using Vicks VapoRub On Your Feet Stop A Cold? Here's What The Science Says

Originally known as Vicks Croup & Pneumonia Salve, Vicks VapoRub has been a household staple since it was first created by Lunsford Richardson in 1894. If your mother or grandmother was like most others, they'd probably come to you with this ointment made of camphor, menthol, and eucalyptus oil whenever you had a cold or were about to get one.

While the product website itself directs consumers to rub a thick layer of the stuff on their chest and throat to relieve congestion during a cold, there is another school of thought (not endorsed by the manufacturer) that seems to promote rubbing Vicks VapoRub on your feet and covering it with socks as a means to stop a cold. The idea is that the VapoRub will work by stimulating the nerves in your feet and thereby somehow prevent a cold. Turns out that this surprising use for Vicks VapoRub isn't based on science. Its origins seem to be from emails circulating to that effect and are partly based on the tenets of reflexology. 

Per Procter & Gamble (via Daily Mail), "It is not in line with what the product is for so we would not endorse it being used in this way." The way the product is meant to be used includes applying the balm in a place that is close enough to the nose so that the scents of camphor, menthol, and eucalyptus reach the nostrils and offer relief. Rubbing the ointment on your feet obviously defeats the purpose. 

So, how does Vicks VapoRub work exactly? 

Vicks VapoRub works by tricking your brain

Even the way the VapoRub works for congested sinuses has more to do with how the brain is tricked into believing it's got some relief than the ingredients actually doing anything for the cold, according to a clinical assistant professor in the Department of Pediatric Allergy, Immunology and Infectious Diseases at Rutgers University, Dr. Satya D. Narisety (via Parents). "The scent of menthol in Vicks VapoRub triggers cold receptors in your nose and upper airway, where you sense temperature and smell. 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," she explained.

In fact, other decongestant medicines — like pills and nasal sprays — could prove more effective by actually narrowing the blood vessels in the lining of your nose, notes the Mayo Clinic

Even with the application of Vicks VapoRub on your chest and throat, it's good to keep certain important things in mind. The ointment isn't recommended for use on children under 2 years of age. For those 2 and above, it is not advisable to apply the stuff directly on or under your nose. Stick with the chest and throat to avoid accidentally ingesting the chemicals or getting the stuff in your eyes. The ingredients in the VapoRub can be toxic if ingested, per Healthline

Back to the claim that it can be applied on your feet: Science thinks that it could offer relief, but not in the way you think. 

Vicks VapoRub on your feet might relieve stress

The act of applying Vicks VapoRub on your feet could be a stress reliever, according to chartered psychologist Dr. Lynne Jordan (via Daily Mail). "By concentrating on something else, i.e. the process of putting Vicks on with the socks, you are reducing your stress levels ... Reduce the stress and in theory you would reduce the cough," shared Dr. Jordan. 

Furthermore, camphor and menthol are known for their cooling properties so this could offer some stress relief or comfort while sick, per Healthline. Additionally, another ingredient found in the VapoRub — eucalyptus oil — is anti-inflammatory by nature; so, if you're having body aches and pains with the cold, applying the stuff on your feet might make you feel better. 

Minus its aromatherapy-like effects that bring comfort to you while you're sick, Vicks VapoRub might benefit your feet in other ways, even if it can't help with a cold. There is also some evidence to support the idea that Vicks VapoRub might help treat toenail fungus when applied to the affected surfaces, per Harvard Health Publishing. The occlusive moisturizer petroleum jelly in the VapoRub together with the anti-bacterial menthol can also help combat cracked and dry heels. But make sure you speak with your dermatologist before applying the stuff, especially if you have certain skin conditions that could be negatively impacted by any of the ingredients in Vicks VapoRub.