On VapoRub and the wisdom of mothers

Posted June 28

Most of us get medical advice from doctors and other health professionals when we're sick, but what Dr. Mom says matters, too.

Sixty percent of us heed our parents' advice and family traditions when deciding how to treat everything from a cold to a bee sting, according to a report on NPR.

This explains how even in the age of sophisticated medical care, an American mother puts Vicks VapoRub on her child's feet to clear his nose, and why a Chinese mother applies sugar water to soothe a bee sting, science writer Wendy Wolfson wrote for NPR's Shots.

"Health and culture are deeply intertwined, and the accepted norms for managing sickness and health vary widely among cultures, even in this globalized era," Wolfson wrote.

Wolfson learned about applying Vicks VapoRub, the iconic Procter & Gamble product, to her children's feet from a Russian caregiver. Her own mother had smeared it on her children's chests.

"Mentholating tiny feet when the cold was affecting very different body parts seemed bizarre, but we were cowed by Sofiya and followed her diktats. And whatever her methods, our kids thrived under her care," Wolfson wrote.

Interested in learning alternative remedies that other families used, Wolfson polled friends in other countries, as well as moms at her children's school in California. She found that all used practices from their culture of origin, sometimes even when it contradicted norms of contemporary allopathic medicine.

A French mother, for example, said that in her family, it's okay to have a glass of Champagne while pregnant, but that she shuns the antibacterial wipes that are ever-present in America, saying that handwashing is enough.

From Greece came the adage that eating late at night is not only bad for your health, but can cause nightmares. "Despite warnings, Greeks do eat full meals late, but the old wisdom is that the heaviest meal should be at lunch, unless you go out to dinner," the NPR report said.

And Chinese tradition treats a child's fever with a glass of warm water, accompanied by heavy clothing that will cause the child to sweat "to release the heat in the body."

"For a cough, minty oil is applied to the chest to relieve congestion," Wolfson wrote.

Minty oil? That sounds something like Vicks VapoRub, and indeed, it turns out the pungent salve has a connection with the East.

Invented by a North Carolina pharmacist in the 1890s to treat croup and pneumonia, its original formulation contained menthol and "a little-known Japanese ingredient," according to the manufacturer. Sales exploded when the Spanish flu hit the U.S. in 1918 (although tragically, its inventor died in the pandemic).

There have been reports that using Vicks VapoRub improperly can cause respiratory problems in children and toddlers, and researchers who applied the stuff to ferrets said no one should use it on or in the nose (a finding sniffed at by the manufacturer). Still, it's widely used by American moms, and the U.K. newspaper The Daily Mail says it kills toenail fungus, clears acne, repels bugs and erases stretch marks, if you don't mind "smelling like you have a permanent cold."

As for putting it on the feet of your sniffly children, the jury's still out, but on NPR, Wolfson concluded, "If you can't go to the doctor, you use what you have." But definitely don't slather the family ferret in it.


TWITTER: @grahamtoday


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