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Vicks versus the virus

April 2: MIT Medical answers your COVID-19 questions. Got a question about COVID-19? Send it to us at CovidQ@mit.edu, and we’ll do our best to provide an answer. 

I’ve heard that putting Vicks VapoRub under your nostrils helps to keep germs out. Is this something that might help to keep someone from getting infected with COVID19?

Illustration of a person applying Vick's Vapo-rub on their face in the shape of a handlebar mustache

This is a great question! Alas, like so many things in life, there’s a kernel of truth in this rumor, but it won’t work in practice and could actually make you very sick. 

The active ingredients in Vick’s VapoRub are camphor, eucalyptus oil, and menthol, which work together to suppress coughs and produce a warming sensation on the skin that is soothing when you’re sick. In fact, VapoRub catapulted to popularity during the pandemic flu of 1918 and has been a popular over-the-counter remedy for respiratory illnesses ever since. 

Camphor, eucalyptus oil, and menthol all have antibacterial properties, so using them to create a protective barrier between your own nose and the respiratory secretions that cause COVID-19 may seem like a no-brainer. Unfortunately, besides being extremely uncomfortable, using VapoRub in your nostrils puts you at risk of developing an extremely ominous-sounding illness called exogenous lipoid pneumonia (ELP), which results from the aspiration or inhalation of fat-like material of animal, vegetable or mineral origin. Long story short, the petrolatum base of VapoRub, when inhaled, can travel to the lungs, where it collects and causes ground-glass opacities — a type of damage also associated with COVID-19.

If you’re feeling ill from any respiratory ailment, using VapoRub on your chest or in a vaporizer may soothe your symptoms. Your healthcare provider can also advise you on other methods to soothe congestion and body aches. But if you’re looking for good ways to prevent the spread of COVID-19, we would suggest that you put down the Vick’s, and reach for the hand soap instead.

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