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Vicks VapoRub Misuse Can Injure Children

Jan 13, 2009 | Parker Waichman LLP, LLP

Wake Forest University researchers have concluded that Procter & Gamble Company’s Vicks VapoRub should not be used on children under two years of age and use of the product could injure very young children.

When applied incorrectly under a child’s nose, Vicks VapoRub can cause breathing problems in young children under the age of two, Reuters reports.  The researchers found that because young children’s airways are so small, when Vicks VapoRub is applied directly under the nose, the product can cause the child’s airways to swell and fill with mucus, said Reuters, which quoted Dr. Bruce Rubin of Wake Forest University School of Medicine in North Carolina as saying, "The only problem we've seen is in a small child when it has been put under the nose."

Rubin explained that ingredients in Vicks VapoRub can—in an effort to actually protect irritated air passages—further irritate and promote mucus production.  This can be especially dangerous in infants and young children whose air passages are tinier than adults; increased mucus production in and swelling of these passages can cause significant swelling which can lead to breathing problems.  "The company is really clear it should never go under the nose or in the nose for anybody and it shouldn't be used in children under two," noted Rubin, said Reuters, whose study appears in the journal Chest.

Rubin explained that although Vicks VapoRub was the only product tested, other similar products could lead to the same results in children and babies.

The research was undertaken after an 18-month old baby suffered from breathing problems after being treated with Vicks VapoRub.  USA Today noted that the child did not respond to treatments for the usual suspects:  Pneumonia and asthma.  It was when her grandparents explained that they had used Vicks VapoRub to treat her cold that the connection was made. The research team used Vicks VapoRub in one group and K-Y Jelly on another and found mucus secretions increased by 14 percent in the VapoRub group of healthy ferrets and eight percent in ferrets with inflamed windpipes.  In research on windpipe specimens, mucus secretions increased by 63 percent when incubated with VapoRub, said USA Today.

Rubin, a mucus and lung specialist and pediatrician from Wake Forest University led the research, which looked at ferrets—whose “airway anatomy” is similar to that of humans.  "We were able to document changes that we think explain this," Rubin told Reuters.  Since the first case three years ago, Rubin and his colleagues have seen similar cases in three other young children who were inappropriately treated with Vicks VapoRub, said WebMD.

P&G spokesman David Bernens defended the product stating that the label says it should not be used in children under two without doctor’s approval, and not under the nose.  "We warn people not to do that," he told Reuters.  American College of Chest Physicians president, Dr. James Mathers, said in a statement that parents should speak with their physicians before treating children with any over-the-counter medication and noted that cough and cold medications can be particularly harmful to babies and toddlers.

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