Could Vicks VapoRub harm children?

January 15th, 2009 - 5:41 pm ICT by IANS  

New York, Jan 15 (IANS) Vicks VapoRub, the menthol-based medicine popular across the globe for decades for relief from cold and congestion, may harm children, according to a new study, though the manufacturer has questioned the finding.The ointment dabbed under noses or rubbed on the soles of feet can be an irritant, increasing the production of mucus and decreasing how fast it is cleared, potentially causing dangerous breathing problems in infants and very young children, the MSNBC news network reported this week on the basis of the study.

“In a small child who may be hypersensitive, this can make the airways even smaller,” Bruce K. Rubin, vice chairman of the department of paediatrics at the Wake Forest University School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, was quoted as saying.

“It can narrow them severely,” he said.

VapoRub only fools the brain into thinking airways are open by using active ingredients such as menthol, camphor and eucalyptus oil that trigger cold sensors but, in reality, congestion remains, he said.

“I would recommend never putting the Vicks in, or under, the nose of anybody - adult or child,” said Rubin, whose work is published in the latest issue of the journal Chest.

“I also would follow the directions and never use it at all in children under age two.”

The study, titled “Vicks VapoRub Induces Mucin Secretion, Decreases Ciliary Beat Frequency, and Increases Tracheal Mucus Transport in the Ferret Trachea”, notes: “Vicks VapoRub (VVR) … is often used to relieve symptoms of chest congestion. We cared for a toddler in whom severe respiratory distress developed after VVR was applied directly under her nose. We hypothesized that VVR induced inflammation and adversely affected mucociliary function, and tested this hypothesis in an animal model of airway inflammation.”

However, Procter & Gamble, which manufactures the 103-year-old balm said the researchers are unfairly targeting the popular product.

“We’re not sure that the data that Dr. Rubin has presented is very conclusive,” MSNBC quoted David Bernens, a Procter & Gamble spokesman, as saying.

“We would hate to see everyone put into undue alarm based on very little data.”

Bernens noted that VapoRub labels warn parents not to use the ointment in children younger than two, and not to put it in the mouth, eyes or nostrils.

While paediatricians the news network contacted acknowledged that Rubin’s research - conducted in ferrets whose respiratory system is similar to that of toddlers - does not translate directly to humans, they also said they agreed with the conclusion to avoid using VapoRub in babies and small children.

“Nobody claims that this medication does any good,” said Michael S. Schechter, an associate professor of paediatrics at Emory University and director of the school’s Cystic Fibrosis Center. “When you’re talking about an agent that does no good, your tolerance for harm is very low.”

A researcher working on the effects of cough and cold medicine said the link between the effects in lab animals and children is tenuous.

“This article is at best incomplete and at worse irresponsible,” said Ian M. Paul, an assistant professor of paediatrics and public health sciences at the Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine.

Paul acknowledged he was conducting a clinical trial, sponsored by Procter & Gamble, focusing on the effects of Vicks VapoRub on cough and congestion. But he said he is known to be critical of drug manufacturers.

“I think you can’t draw any definitive conclusions based on this study,” he said.

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