The Placebo Joy Of Vicks VapoRub
However, Rubin himself has said, “Vicks is not bad. It does what it is meant to do: It gives the brain the sensation of relief of stuffiness, menthol triggers specific cold receptors in the nose and bronchial tubes. That is why it has been added to cigarettes called things like Kool. If you can’t sleep because you are so congested, and put it on your chest, it makes you feel better. It doesn’t open things up—but for most kids, it doesn’t plug things up, either.” And as he told Scientific American, Vicks “doesn’t improve air flow, but it does give that same sensation of increased air flow.”
Truth! Amidst a wintry night’s virus-addled insomnia, when I can’t sleep for the ratchety, bubbling sound of my own breathing, I take comfort in my little blue plastic tub. I apply a greasy smudge to my upper lip—it stings a little, where my nostrils are raw from blowing—and gasp an Arctic breeze straight to the brain. Reassured that I won’t suffocate in the night, I relax enough to fall asleep. The soothing perception exists wholly apart from any pulmonary reality. Again, Vicks alters my access to the world—for the worse, perhaps, in terms of oxygen absorption, for the better in terms of pain relief and rest—and transforms my conscious experience of it. While part of my brain keeps laboring to keep me breathing, and my cells suffer, Vicks numbs my brain to the experience of the struggle. Yet I really do awake more refreshed. Vicks reshapes my awareness like a kind of global climate change-denying therapy: Politically, it offends me; practically, it helps me sleep at night. The simile ends there.
I had to laugh at this, because nothing is quite as comforting when I have a chest cold as Vicks VapoRub. When my father was a child growing up in rural Louisiana, country people had a folk belief in the healing powers of VapoRub (basically, petroleum jelly spiked with menthol, eucalyptus, and camphor). When he was a kid and would have a chest cold, his mother would instruct him to put a glop of it under his tongue and let it dissolve.
He never did that to us as kids, but he and my mother were very much true believers in Vicks, which to us was known as “Vicksalve” (say “VICK-savv). I had chest congestion a lot as a kid, and there was nothing quite so comforting as to have my mom or my dad rub my chest down at bedtime with Vicksalve, then tell me to put on a white t-shirt. The belief was that the Vicksalve “opened up” one’s chest, and one had to wear the t-shirt to keep cold air from rushing into the chest cavity. One was under strict parental instruction to take a shower first thing in the morning to wash off the Vicksalve; failure to do this meant one would go out into the wintry day with a chest wide open to infection.
This, of course, is not true, but we believed it. And Vicksalve really did, and really does, comfort you when you were sick with head and chest congestion. From Kinney’s article, it was nice to learn why that is. Even if it’s a fake feeling, when you’re flat on your back with a chest full of mucus, you’ll take fake, and be happy about it.