Whatever the anatomical explanation, back in the day such treatments were liberally prescribed and believed to be effective. Dr. Alvin Wood Chase's embrocation for whooping cough, for example, consisted of equal parts oil of amber and spirits of hartshorn (ammonia). "Apply to the soles of the feet, and to the palms of the hands, morning, noon, and night," he advised in Dr. Chase's Recipes (1876).
In the Handbook of Practical Medicine (1876), Dr. Felix von Niemeyer prescribed the following for croup: "The application of sinapisms (mustard plasters) to the calves of the legs and soles of the feet, repeated bathing of the hands and forearms in water as hot as the child can bear, the use of 'flying blisters' to the neck and chest, are recommended, partly to corroborate the action of the stimulants administered internally, and partly as a derivative from the larynx to the skin."
The 1909 edition of Johnson's First Aid Manual recommended the same.
Holistic and folk medicine
Though such remedies have largely fallen out of favor among mainstream doctors, they have survived in the form of folk wisdom and we still find them touted in textbooks of holistic medicine. "A time-honored treatment for chest colds," writes Kathi Kemper in The Holistic Pediatrician, "is the mustard poultice. Mustard poultices apparently increase circulation to your child's chest, creating a soothing sense of warmth." A garlic or onion poultice can also be used, Kemper says, noting that some herbalists "recommend that the garlic poultice be placed over the soles of the feet to draw heat downward."
"Other folk remedies placed on the feet to draw the circulation downward," she continues, "are turpentine and camphor" — which, as it happens, are two of the active ingredients in Vicks VapoRub, which brings us full circle.
Judging from the volume of reader testimonials published by The People's Pharmacy authors Joe and Terry Graedon in their newspaper columns in recent years, putting Vicks on your feet is nothing short of a miracle cure. "I was looking for home remedies for coughs when I found your Website," wrote one correspondent. "I read about putting Vicks VapoRub on the soles of the feet. Within ten minutes of applying it, he was asleep without a cough. Thanks!"
"We can't explain how smearing Vicks on the soles of the feet could take away a cough," the Graedons replied, "but many others have told us it works. Be sure to put socks on him to protect the sheets."
A final word
While Vicks is surely harmless enough when used as directed, parents should be aware that applying it to children's feet as a cough remedy is not among the uses recommended by the manufacturer. To quote Dr. Iannelli: "As with other alternative treatments, herbal therapies, or simply using over-the-counter or prescription medicines 'off-label' or in a way that they weren't intended, parents should be aware that there can be consequences. Kids can have sensitive feet, and applying a cream or ointment that may act like an irritant could cause a rash that looks like athlete's foot. This rash, juvenile plantar dermatosis, is also commonly seen in kids who have sweaty feet or who don't change their socks often enough."
Sources and further reading:
- Chase, Alvin Wood. Dr. Chases's Recipes: Or, Information for Everybody: An Invaluable Collection of About Eight Hundred Practicle Recipes for Merchants, Grocers, Saloon-Keepers, Physicians, Druggists (Etc.). R.A. Beal, 1888. P. 318.
- Graedon, Joe and Terry. "The People's Pharmacy." King Features Syndicate, 12 December 2005.
- Johnson's First Aid Manual. Johnson & Johnson, 1903. P. 86.
- Kemper, Kathi. The Holistic Pediatrition: A Pediatricians Comprehensive Guide to Safe and Effective Therapies for the 25 Most Common Ailments of Infants, Children, and Adolescents. Haper Collins, 2002. P. 176.
- Niemeyer, Felix von (tr. Humphreys). A Textbook of Practical Medicine. D. Appleton and Co., 1883. P. 30.
Last updated: 11/04/13