When the first wave of cold and flu season swept over me, I found myself sniffly, sneezy, and aimlessly wandering the cold medicine aisle at my local big-box store. As my germ-laden self eyed boxes of decongestants and cough suppressants, I spotted Vicks VapoPatch, a product I’d never seen before. I stopped short, wondering if it could provide the same comfort as my childhood staple Vicks VapoRub, but without the mess and watery eyes from the pleasant yet pretty overpowering smell.
Before I go further, I should explain.
In the ‘90s and early aughts, when I was a perpetually cold-stricken child, my devoted father regularly tried to alleviate my symptoms with over-the-counter ointments like Vicks VapoRub. On nights when I was tossing and turning with a cough or stuffy nose, I’d wake up to my dad standing over me, that trusty little blue pot in hand. He’d slather me with that signature Vicks grease, then I’d drift back off to sleep, feeling like I could breathe easier with the scent of Vicks vapor in my nostrils.
It was with all of this in mind that I gazed upon these VapoPatches, feeling a mix of confusion and amusement. The patches only launched in the summer of 2019, Mollie Wheeler, a spokesperson for Vicks, tells SELF, as opposed to the rub, which Wheeler notes has been on the market for over 125 years (!!!). If the patches had been around when I was a child, would my life as a constant sick kid have been different? Maybe a little more pleasant? Would I still have had to deal with greasy ointment on my chest and neck? What about the watery eyes?
You might be wondering about the difference between the two products. (I was, too.) VapoRub, which is approved for people aged 2 and over, is a topical ointment made out of plant-derived ingredients including camphor, eucalyptus oil, and menthol. According to the manufacturer, when slathered on your chest and neck, VapoRub is meant to relieve common cold symptoms like coughing and throat irritation. Camphor, for instance, acts as a cough suppressant because “it triggers some of the nerve endings in the back of the throat not to be ‘tickled’ as often and to [not] produce a cough,” Issac Namdar, M.D., associate professor of otolaryngology at Mount Sinai West, tells SELF. It’s also a topical pain reliever. Eucalyptus oil also works as a cough suppressant, as does menthol, an aromatic compound made from mint oils, which in addition to suppressing coughs and relieving pain can be helpful in creating the sensation of unblocked nasal passages, according to the Mayo Clinic. Typically, when you have a cold, your nasal passages get stopped up due to inflammation, and while research suggests that menthol doesn’t reduce inflammation, it may make you feel like your nasal passages are clearer.
Unlike VapoRub, which Wheeler explains is considered an over-the-counter drug product, VapoPatches, which you also apply around your chest area, are technically a non-medicated aromatherapy product. Even though the patches also include ingredients like camphor, eucalyptus oil, and menthol, they’re in different percentages than in the medicated product, Wheeler explains. “The patch is non-therapeutic,” she says. “The aroma released from the product is intended to provide [a pleasant] individual scent experience to the consumer.” Basically, they’re meant to smell nice, but not to actually relieve cold symptoms like a cough.
That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re utterly useless if you feel sick, Dr. Namdar says. “We think that because of the proximity of the chest to the nose and mouth, as the vapor is being released, the person breathing gets … instantaneous aromatherapy with [their] body heat releasing the compounds,” he says. If that aromatherapy makes you feel a little pampered or like your nasal passages are a bit clearer, well, great.