Is Vicks Vapor Rub Addictive?


Recently I addressed the question of whether the over-the-counter sleep-aid Unisom was addictive.

According to the definition of addiction and its many particulars, the answer is no.

The answer to whether Vicks Vapor Rub is addictive calls forth the same answer: No.

What is Vicks Vapor Rub?

Despite being around for more than 100 years, vapor rubs like Vicks had not been subjected to serious peer-reviewed research until 2010. At that time, Ian Paul, MD, and colleagues at the Penn State College of Medicine decided to compare the efficacy of oral over-the-counter treatments, such as dextromethorphan and diphenhydramine, for upper respiratory infection symptoms in children against a placebo.

They found these products were no better than placebo.

However, when the research team compared vapor rubs (which contain menthol, camphor and eucalyptus oils) for the same symptoms against a placebo, they found that vapor rubs were in fact much more effective at providing symptomatic relief from night-time cold symptoms, and they had the added benefit of improving sleep for kids with colds.

In short, they work. And they're safe.

Is Vicks Vapor Rub Addictive?

If you do a Google search for this question, you'll find several posts by people saying they are convinced they are addicted to this product. My first inclination is to say that if you think you're addicted to Vicks, you don't know what it really means to be addicted to drugs with established abuse and addictive potential because if you did, you would likely alter your language a bit here.

The truth is that provided something is found to be moderately pleasurable, somebody out there will find a way to overuse and abuse it. This doesn't qualify it for a clinical addiction. Rather, it's more a question of impulse control. And there is a substantial difference. Addiction is medical and has a physiological basis, while impulsiveness is behavioral and might have a very strong psychological basis but not a physiological one.

Still, we bandy the word 'addiction' around like it should be attached to anything we find ourselves 'enjoying too much.' A good example is work addiction or being a workaholic. A person may have trouble tearing themselves away from work, or from a video game, or from the mentholated aroma of Vicks Vapor Rub, but true addictions kidnap the very functions of the human mind and eliminate control. The person begins to seek their drug of choice no matter the cost to themselves or the people around them.

Again, a person may find that they love applying Vicks Vapor Rub. If they are using it beyond what is recommended on the label and outside of a doctor's recommendation, then they are abusing it. They have trouble controlling their impulses towards it. They should speak with their doctor about it. But they are not addicted.

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