Vapour rubs

Also called chest rubs

Vapour rubs are ointments that contain essential oils such as menthol, camphor and eucalyptus. Find out how to use them safely and possible side effects.

Vapour rubs are used to clear stuffy and blocked noses and to ease coughs, especially in children aged 2 to 11 years. Examples of vapour rubs are Vicks®, Vicks Baby Balsam® and Ethics Chest Rub®.

How do I use vapour rubs?

Breathing in the essential oils from vapour rubs can help to clear blocked noses. Vapour rubs are usually applied to your skin, on your throat, chest or back. Rub gently and leave clothes loose to allow vapours to be inhaled easily. 

For children with sensitive skin, apply the product to a tissue or handkerchief and place it in a pyjama pocket, inside a pillow case or under the sheets. Do not use on babies under 3 months of age. If your child’s symptoms do not go away, talk to your pharmacist or doctor.

When are vapour rubs not suitable?

  • Do not use if your child is under 3 months old.
  • Do not apply around your nostrils, mouth, eyes or on your face.
  • Do not use on broken skin or wounds.

What are the side effects of vapour rubs?

Most people will not have problems, but some may get an allergic skin reaction (skin rash; red, itchy skin) or irritation of the skin. People with epilepsy are at increased risk of seizures when exposed to essential oils such as menthol, camphor and eucalyptus.

Did you know that you can report a side effect to a medicine to CARM (Centre for Adverse Reactions Monitoring)? Report a side effect to a product

If someone accidentally swallows some vapour rub, go to hospital straight away. Take the vapour rub with you. Do not try to make them sick (vomit).


  1. Vapor rub, petrolatum, and no treatment for children with nocturnal cough and cold symptoms Pediatrics, US, 2010
  2. Essential oils associated with seizures Medsafe, NZ, 2011
Credits: Sandra Ponen, Pharmacist. Reviewed By: Angela Lambie, Pharmacist, Auckland Last reviewed: 28 Jun 2018