VapoRub Days

It seems to be the cold season in central Ohio. Hearing the sneezes, coughs, and sniffles around town made me think of having a cold when I was a kid–and the home treatments that were inevitably applied in response.

In our household, Mom was the family medic. If you were sneezing or coughing, she would feel your forehead and take your temperature with a thermometer, and if you varied much from 98.6 you were sent to bed. Then Mom would head to the medicine cabinet and a closet shelf to retrieve the same crucial pillars of treatment that were applied to every cold: Vicks VapoRub, Dristan nasal spray, St. Joseph’s aspirin for children, Smith Brothers cough syrup, and a humidifier that was set up in your room. (In those days, long before prescription drug commercials for every known medical condition came to dominate TV broadcasts, all of the medications we consumed were of the over-the-counter variety.)

It wasn’t clear whether Mom had received any meaningful medical training, or advice or instruction from the pharmacist at the neighborhood drug store, but she took her doctoring duties seriously. And her treatment sent an unmistakable message: when your chest had been liberally swabbed with pungent, seemingly radioactive VapoRub, you had a harsh blast of spray shot into the far reaches of your nasal cavity, and you swallowed a few gag-inducing spoonfuls of bad-tasting cherry-flavored cough syrup and heard the hum of the humidifier, you accepted that you were, in fact, sick, and just waited until you got better. The only saving grace on the medicine front was the St. Joseph’s aspirin for children, which had a piquant orange flavor and actually tasted pretty good. You came away thinking that St. Joseph, whoever he was, must have been a nice guy to invent a kid’s aspirin that helped to get the taste of the cough syrup out of your mouth.

Did the rotation of VapoRub, Dristan, Smith Brothers, and St. Joseph’s, along with the constant whiffs of humidified air, actually have a therapeutic effect? We’ll never know for sure, but we do know one thing: the colds eventually went away and we did get better, even as the powerful odor of VapoRub lingered for a day or two thereafter.