Vicks VapoRub is a topical ointment that contains petrolatum -- petroleum jelly -- which can cause respiratory tract irritation when inhaled. VapoRub is flammable under certain conditions and potentially toxic when ingested. It is a common cold and decongestant remedy that is safe when used appropriately but should not be added to a humidifier. Procter & Gamble, which manufactures Vicks products, also produces a line of Vicks-branded humidifiers. But the company cautions against using the ointment in warm-mist humidifiers and, instead, makes Vicks VapoSteam, a product that contains no petrolatum, to be used in a vaporizer.
Gunk and Your Humidifier
Anything oily or greasy added to a humidifier creates buildup that will affect the mechanisms that propel the steam or cold vapor. Vicks VapoRub -- a cream or ointment -- contains an oily petroleum derivative that can shorten the life of your humidifier and is flammable when heated. The product warnings issued by Procter & Gamble say: "When using this product, do not heat, microwave, add to hot water or any container where heating water." Check the manufacturer's instructions for humidifiers with separate essential oil compartments or medicine cups before adding any topical ointments to the dispenser.
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VapoSteam and Vaporizers
For those who reach for the Vicks when a winter cold settles in, the company has created a product that is safe to use in a vaporizer. VapoSteam is a liquid designed to be added to water in a vaporizer where its active ingredient, camphor, is released along with eucalyptus and other soothing oils that are antiseptic and decongestant. The tannins in eucalyptus leaves may be anti-inflammatory and are used in the form of essential oils -- in vaporizers and diffusers, not humidifiers -- as room fresheners and cold remedies. VapoSteam does not contain the petrolatum that gives VapoRub its consistency.
In addition to preventing damage to your humidifier, proper use of Vicks VapoRub will protect your children. Keep it away from children under 2 years old. The ingredients in Vicks can irritate sensitive mucous membranes, inflaming airways and prompting excessive mucus production. This can cause respiratory distress. Camphor stimulates the sensation of coolness; the feeling can make it seem as if a stuffy nose is clearing, although camphor does not clear blocked sinuses. Vicks VapoRub is also toxic when ingested and should not be applied to babies' feet or skin, especially under the nostrils. Check with your pediatrician about relief of cold and flu symptoms in babies and young children, and use over-the-counter remedies responsibly for under-the-weather people of all ages.
- University of Maryland Medical Center: Eucalyptus
- Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center: Popular Cold and Cough Treatment May Create Respiratory Distress in Young Children
- Vicks: Vicks VapoRub Topical Ointment
- Purdue University: Petrolatum, White
- Vicks: VapoSteam
- Vicks: Filtered Cool Moisture Humidifier Use and Care Manual
Benna Crawford has been a journalist and New York-based writer since 1997. Her work has appeared in USA Today, the San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times, and in professional journals and trade publications. Crawford has a degree in theater, is a certified Prana Yoga instructor, and writes about fitness, performing and decorative arts, culture, sports, business and education .