Friday, January 16, 2009

Ferreting out truth about Vicks VapoRub

By Jim Heffernan

Word this month that Vicks VapoRub might be harmful to small children, especially if applied around the nose, must have shaken the long-held beliefs of people who have forced this smelly nostrum on their kids at the first sneeze of a cold.

We were Vicks VapoRub people when I was growing up, firmly believing that the menthol-gel would “cure” the common cold, and who cared that the Vick people didn’t even know how to use an apostrophe.

A recent study at Wake Forest University has found that putting Vicks on or in the noses of very small children – up to age 2 or so – could actually cause breathing problems, it was reported by the Washington Post and propagated on Minnesota Public Radio. They learned this by putting Vicks VapoRub on ferrets (honest). (This was also reported in the scientific journal “Chest,” a much more serious periodical than either Penthouse or Playboy, which nevertheless focus on similar things.)

Just think what a surprise it must have been to the poor ferrets, going about their business of ferreting things out, to have some guy (or gal) in a white lab coat stick Vicks VapoRub up their noses? Where’s PETA when they really need them?

But back to me.

I checked the Wikipedia entry on Vicks VapoRub before writing this and learned that it was concocted (my word) in the 1890s but really took off during the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918, when people thought it helped ward off the dreaded flu bug. This epidemic should not be confused with the Spanish fly epidemic of the 1950s

My parents lived through the flu epidemic (they weren’t Spanish) and probably put great faith in Vicks, maybe even using it themselves at the time. In any event, it was always in our medicine “chest” (not to be confused with the journal “Chest) at home when I was a child, and at the first sign of a cold, out it came and on it went – nose and throat with eyes and ears spared.

I hated it, but there’s little a child can do to fend off a parent intent on curing him or her of suspected ailments. Well, the child can run. In one Vicks episode I was wearing my new World War II official Navy sailor suit when my father attempted to corner me for the application of VapoRub. I ran. He chased. The sailor suit suffered – was ruined, actually. I probably got the cold.

We, like just about everyone in those days, used Vicks three main ways: 1) Smearing on the neck and chest; 2) smearing on the neck and chest with a rag – preferably a wool sock to enhance discomfort – wrapped around the neck, and 3) smearing also beneath the nostrils and even up into them. A fourth method, scooping globs of VapoRub into a sauce pan of boiling water and breathing in the menthol-laden steam, was also popular but it didn’t work any better than the other applications.

As I grew older and up, I came to believe in Vicks VapoRub, just like everybody else who didn’t know anything about medicine. Long after I shed my belief in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy and all other fairies, guardian angels, the wily snipe, or that for every drop of rain a flower grows, I believed in Vicks VapoRub.

It took a few hundred colds to make me realize that Vicks didn’t help cure them at all, and I finally gave up on it. Besides, it gooed up the hair on my chest (not to be confused with the journal “Chest”) in unsightly ways.

Obligatory disclaimer: The American College of Chest (not to be confused…well, you know) Physicians says parents should consult with a physician before administering any over-the-counter medicine to infants and young children. Furthermore the college says that all applications for admission have been filled through 2018 but that there are still openings at the Electoral College, although college isn’t for everybody.


Anonymous said...

Hi Jim
I was reading your blog this morning when my 15 month old grandson presented me with a small bottle of Vick's VapoRub. The little fellow managed to push open the door to Grandma's and Grandpa's room. His explorations produced a small blue bottle of VapoRub which with a big smile he presented to me. Watching all this with arched eyebrow (bad sign) is Grandma. "And where was Grandpa during Dylan's little search. Wasn't it your job to be watching him!" The temperature I'm sure dropped 60 degrees. Even the little guy shivered. I blamed it on you. Thanks
Erick H.

Jim Heffernan said...

Hello, Erick...Wow, quite the coincidence. I have some small grandchildren myself, so I know what you're talking about. Yeah, Vicks. Some say it's a good analgesic for muscle pain, which I suspect caused a jar to be in grandma and grandpa's room. Glad to have you as a reader of my blog. A shortened, somewhat changed, version of that VapoRub column will appear in the March issue of Duluth-Superior Magazine. I couldn't resist "spreading" it around a little more.
Thanks for writing. -- Jim

Kath1e said...

My Mother was such a beleiver that she made us swallow gobs of it!

Jim Heffernan said...

Hi Kathie, I just caught your comment on Vicks. I'd almost forgotten about that column. Glad to have been reminded. Like pizza, Vicks seems to be "rubbed" into the memories of so many of us (swallowed, in your case). I placed way too much stock in it at a far too advanced an age for a supposedly intelligent person. Well, intelligent enough to get by. Don't mean to brag. -- Jim