Vicks VapoRub has been around since 1919, when a Spanish flu epidemic solidified its place in American medicine cabinets, but only in relatively recent history have consumers begun using it on their feet instead of its intended application on the chest and neck.
There’s no actual scientific evidence that slathering the cough suppressant on your soles (followed by socks, of course) can stop your hacking, but there is plenty of anecdotal proof.
“I just tried this remedy about 10 minutes ago and my coughing has already stopped,” wrote one commenter on The People’s Pharmacy, an online community inspired by the bestselling book by Joe and Terry Graedon.
“I was coughing every 3-5 minutes for about 30 minutes straight and it’s amazing how something can work so quickly. Not even those over the counter cough medications work as well.”
The ointment’s active ingredient is menthol, which Rutgers University paediatrician Satya D. Narisety tells Parents.com, “doesn’t actually open up airways or break up mucous, but…trick[s] your brain into thinking your airways are opening up and you’re not so congested.”
Vicks Vaporub, £4.58, Amazon
Joe Graedon, a pharmacologist with an M.S. from University of Michigan, has a theory about how the Vicks-on-feet remedy might work, based on recent research by Nobel prize-winning neuroscientist Rod MacKinnon, M.D., and his colleague Bruce Bean, Ph.D., of Harvard.
MacKinnon and Bean’s studies show how overstimulated nerves trigger muscle cramps. They found that drinking a spicy beverage of cinnamon, ginger, and pepper extract stimulated nerves in the mouth, throat, and stomach, which, as Graedon writes, “affected the spinal column and overwhelmed the nerves that were causing muscle cramps.”
The findings could help explain why so many people swear eating a tablespoon of mustard cures their nighttime leg cramps.
Given that feet contains lots of nerves, Graedon speculates that sensory nerves in the soles of the feet may respond to stimulation with Vicks VapoRub, stating: “The [brain’s] cough centre is right next to the spinal cord. If the sensory nerves in the soles of the feet stimulate the spinal cord, they might be able to interrupt the cough cycle.”
Again, the remedy hasn’t been observed in any official capacity, but there seems to be no harm in trying it for yourself the next time you feel a whooping fit coming on. If nothing else, you’ll end up with smoother feet.
This article originally appeared on Cosmopolitan UK
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