Why does Vicks vaporub say for ‘external use only’ on the warning label?

img_5927November 22, 2010

I took my plastic bag and whipped through my medicine cabinet, laundry room, and kitchen over the counter medication shelf. We were discussing warning labels in my undergraduate health communication class, and I use products from my home to have students identify the parts of the warning as we discuss the content and what the research says about the likely effects.

Several products say, ‘for external use only.’ One says to avoid use on the lips. The latter is a product called ‘bite-aid’ and it comes in a chapstick kind of container. I told the story about sitting in the airport and reaching into my purse for my chapterstick, feeling the ‘bite-aid’, and applying it to my lips. It didn’t take long to feel like my lips were swelling. I told my class about how I asked my husband if my lips were swelling. I told him how odd they were feeling after putting on my chapstick, which I held out to show him. Still not realizing that I was not holding out my chapstick. He took one look and said, ‘That’s  not your chapstick.’ With surprise, I looked down, read the label, visited the bathroom and scrubbed my lips–which soon returned to feeling normal.

“That,” I told my class, “is an example of a potential harm related to a product that could be solved with different packaging.” As I noted, “I didn’t intentionally put it on my lips, so even though the label says, ‘do not use on lips’, that content didn’t really help in my situation.”

One of the student’s then told about how the Vicks vaporub said, ‘for external use only.’ “My grandmother always made us eat a tablespoon of it when we were sick,” she said. I hardly knew what to say to that. “Why?” I asked. “Because it is for your chest cold and that is how to get it in your chest.” I was quiet as I thought about that. “It works,” she said.

Another product a student had was benadryl gel. The label also said, ‘for external use only’. The student observed, “That’s probably because you usually take benadryl as a pill… and this liquid looks like you could put it in a spoon like cough syrup. So I bet some people have done that.”

Warning labels have content that may help us avoid harm…if we read them. …and they make sense.

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