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Vicks VapoRub is an old-time ointment sold as an aid when fighting a cold. (Tatsuo Yamashita via Flickr Creative Vicks VapoRub is an old-time ointment sold as an aid when fighting a cold. (Tatsuo Yamashita via Flickr Creative

Vicks VapoRub is an old-time ointment sold as an aid when fighting a cold. (Tatsuo Yamashita via Flickr Creative

Jon Greenberg
By Jon Greenberg January 6, 2017

Parenting blog falsely claims Vicks VapoRub was fatal

Here’s a scary story. A mother in Mexico thinks that her 2-year-old has a cold and puts Vicks VapoRub on his chest and under his nose. She lies down next to him and when she wakes, she finds the child dead.

The tale began moving through the Web in November., a website that targets young mothers, carried it on Nov. 25 with the headline, "Mom applies a remedy to her baby, moments later he dies."

But so far as anyone can tell, the story is untrue. Vicks VapoRub has been tied to breathing problems in infants and toddlers, but not to any deaths. The post was flagged by Facebook users as part of the social media giant’s crackdown on fake news.

Bruce Rubin, chair of the Department of Pediatrics at Virginia Commonwealth University, has followed questions about Vicks VapoRub for a decade. In 2009, he published a peer-reviewed article based on a case he had encountered a few years before. The parents of an 18-month-old had put Vicks under the child’s nose and the child immediately stopped breathing. They quickly turned the child upside down, slapped it on the back and it coughed up a plug of mucus. Its breathing returned to normal.

But Rubin told us that in the 10 years since that case, he’s seen no report of any deaths. On the other hand, episodes of breathing distress while rare, are not unheard of.

"I understand that there have been about 30 such reports, all with Vicks under the nose of very small children," Rubin said. "Procter and Gamble (the maker of Vicks) specifically states never to use this directly under the nose at any age, and never use at all in children under the age of 2."

To underscore, that is what the label says. Never under the nose. Never with kids under 2.

A 2012 study looked at what happens when menthol, one of Vicks’ active ingredients, is inhaled. It found that the body responds by making more mucus, but again, the authors cited no example of a child actually dying.

Jennifer Lowry, head of toxicology at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City and chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ environmental health council, said, "I have never heard, nor could I find a report of, a patient dying from inhaling Vicks VapoRub."

Lowry said as a pediatric medical toxicologist, she has concerns about any product that contains camphor, as Vicks does. But her main worry is that parents will do exactly the wrong thing and have kids eat it. That’s very dangerous.

Featured Fact-check

Procter and Gamble spokeswoman Velvet Gogol Bennett said the company has never had a family report a fatality due to inhaling Vicks VapoRub.

"We have had no local health authority notification, no hospital notification, nor any doctor or any official news organization anywhere in the world has brought this case to our attention," Bennett said. "Despite all of our efforts to investigate this social media posting, there is no verifiable information in terms of city and name of the person concerned."

The blog post about the alleged death said, "The medical report stated the child died due to inflammation in the respiratory track, produced by the camphor contained in the famous ointment."

If such a medical report exists, no researcher we contacted seems to have ever seen it.

We reached out to the author behind the blog and did not hear back.

The myth-busting website Snopes also looked into this and found it lacked substance. A Canadian study looked at cases of children eating Vicks or similar products. Those situations sent children to the emergency room, but were not fatal. The one exception was in 1983 involving a child with pneumonia whose parents had given him a home remedy that contained camphor and alcohol.

Rubin said if people follow instructions, Vicks is fine: "If you are an adult with a stuffy head cold, putting Vicks on your chest and drinking some hot tea with honey (and perhaps rum) is as good a medicine as it gets. Just keep the Vicks (and the rum) away from the under-2 crowd."

Our ruling

A blog post said that Vicks VapoRub caused a child’s death in Mexico. While the product has been tied to breathing problems in infants and toddlers, there is no evidence that it has been fatal.

We rate this claim False.

Our Sources

Smag31, Mom applies a remedy to her baby, moments later he dies. Be careful with this, moms!, Nov. 25, 2016, Misuse of Vicks VapoRub may harm infants and toddlers, Jan. 13, 2009

Pediatrics and Child Health, Unintentional exposure of young children to camphor and eucalyptus oils, February 2001

Canadian Respiratory Journal, The effect of inhaled menthol on upper airway resistance in humans: A randomized controlled crossover study, January 2013

Open Journal of Molecular and Integrative Physiology, Analysis of pathomechanisms involved in side effects of menthol treatment in respiratory diseases, Nov. 20, 2012

U.S. National Library of Medicine DailyMed, Drug facts: Vicks VapoRub, Dec. 20, 2016

ABC News, Vicks VapoRub Misuse May Hurt Infants, Jan. 13, 2009

Snopes, Scold Medicine, Nov. 28, 2016

Pediatrics, Vapor Rub, Petrolatum, and No Treatment for Children With Nocturnal Cough and Cold Symptoms, Aug. 13, 2010

Email interview, Bruce Rubin, professor and chair, Department of Pediatrics,Virginia Commonwealth University, Jan. 4, 2017

Email interview, Jennifer Lowry, chief, Section of Toxicology, Children's Mercy Hospital, Kansas City, Jan. 5, 2017

Email interview, Velvet Gogol Bennett, spokeswoman, Procter and Gamble, Jan. 4, 2017

Email interview, Michael Fitzpatrick, Division of Respiratory & Critical Care Medicine, Queen’s University, Ontario, Jan. 5, 2017

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Parenting blog falsely claims Vicks VapoRub was fatal

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