Vapour rubs and vapouriser fluids

Also called chest rubs or essential oils

Key points about vapour rubs and vapouriser fluids

  • Vapour rubs and vapouriser fluids contain essential oils such as menthol, camphor and eucalyptus.
  • They are used to clear stuffy and blocked noses and to ease coughs, 
  • Examples of vapour rubs are Vicks®, Vicks Baby Balsam® and Ethics Chest Rub®.
  • The use of chest rubs and vapouriser fluids are no longer recommended because they don’t have any proven benefit AND can be poisonous. They can make young children very sick if they swallow them.
  • The use of camphor blocks or camphorated oil for any purpose is also not recommended.
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The use of chest rubs or vapouriser or inhalant liquids to treat coughs and colds, or for any other purpose are no longer recommended.

Chest rubs and vapouriser liquids don't have any proven benefit.

  • Chest rubs and vapouriser liquids don't make it easier to breathe or have a decongestant effect.
  • They can make you feel as though your airways are clearing, but this is because camphor, menthol or eucalyptus oil make your nostrils more sensitive to cold air.

As a safer option, use saltwater drops (saline) to treat a stuffy nose – ask your pharmacist or family doctor for instructions.

Children are particularly at risk of toxicity

The camphor and eucalyptus oil in chest rubs and vapouriser liquids are poisonous and can make children very sick if they swallow them. As little as 2mL (less than half a teaspoon) of eucalyptus oil can cause significant poisoning in an infant. There have been reports of seizures in children who have swallowed products such as Vicks vapour rub. Be safe and do not have chest rubs or vapouriser liquids in the house.

Camphor blocks or camphorated oil don't have any proven benefit for any purpose and, if swallowed, can be very toxic

Only a small amount of a camphor block or as little as 5mL of camphorated oil can be fatal. Camphor liquid is absorbed quickly and seizures can occur soon after eating camphor.

Do not:

  • rub camphorated oil on a child's chest when they have a cough or cold
  • pin a camphor block to a child's clothing
  • put a camphor block under a child's pillow..

Be safe. Don't keep camphor blocks or camphorated oil in the house and don't use them for any purpose.

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Credits: Sandra Ponen, Pharmacist, Healthify He Puna Waiora. Healthify is brought to you by Health Navigator Charitable Trust.

Reviewed by: Angela Lambie, Pharmacist, Auckland

Last reviewed: