Vapor rub, petrolatum, and no treatment for children with nocturnal cough and cold symptoms

Pediatrics. 2010 Dec;126(6):1092-9. doi: 10.1542/peds.2010-1601. Epub 2010 Nov 8.


Objective: To determine if a single application of a vapor rub (VR) or petrolatum is superior to no treatment for nocturnal cough, congestion, and sleep difficulty caused by upper respiratory tract infection.

Methods: Surveys were administered to parents on 2 consecutive days--on the day of presentation when no medication had been given the previous evening, and the next day when VR ointment, petrolatum ointment, or no treatment had been applied to their child's chest and neck before bedtime according to a partially double-blinded randomization scheme.

Results: There were 138 children aged 2 to 11 years who completed the trial. Within each study group, symptoms were improved on the second night. Between treatment groups, significant differences in improvement were detected for outcomes related to cough, congestion, and sleep difficulty; VR consistently scored the best, and no treatment scored the worst. Pairwise comparisons demonstrated the superiority of VR over no treatment for all outcomes except rhinorrhea and over petrolatum for cough severity, child and parent sleep difficulty, and combined symptom score. Petrolatum was not significantly better than no treatment for any outcome. Irritant adverse effects were more common among VR-treated participants.

Conclusions: In a comparison of VR, petrolatum, and no treatment, parents rated VR most favorably for symptomatic relief of their child's nocturnal cough, congestion, and sleep difficulty caused by upper respiratory tract infection. Despite mild irritant adverse effects, VR provided symptomatic relief for children and allowed them and their parents to have a more restful night than those in the other study groups.

Trial registration: NCT00743990.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Antitussive Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Common Cold / complications
  • Common Cold / drug therapy*
  • Cough / drug therapy*
  • Cough / etiology
  • Double-Blind Method
  • Emollients / therapeutic use*
  • Female
  • Follow-Up Studies
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Petrolatum / therapeutic use*
  • Respiratory Therapy / methods*
  • Steam
  • Treatment Outcome


  • Antitussive Agents
  • Emollients
  • Steam
  • Petrolatum

Associated data