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People’s Pharmacy: Vicks gets toenails ready for sandals

The winter was brutal for much of the country, but spring is finally here. That means we will emerge from our cocoons and swap our parkas and boots for T-shirts and sandals.

Of course, once toes are exposed, everyone will see the nail fungus that has been lurking undercover all winter. Dermatologists are still puzzled why some people are susceptible to this infection while others are resistant.

Once it gets a “foothold,” nail fungus can be tenacious. One reader admitted: “I have had fungus on one of my toes for a long time. I have been to the dermatologist and podiatrist repeatedly and even had the nail removed. I was given strong pills, but they didn’t work. The podiatrist does not understand why the infection persists.”

Nail removal is an extreme measure for fighting fungus. Besides discomfort and the risk of infection, it doesn’t always produce a lasting cure.

Prescription medications may help, but they are not infallible. They also have potential side effects. Drugs like itraconazole (Sporanox) and terbinafine (Lamisil) must be taken for 12 weeks. They both carry a warning about serious liver toxicity. Other side effects include headache, digestive distress (diarrhea, nausea, gas and stomachache), dizziness, rash and itching.

It’s hardly any wonder that people are willing to try home remedies before taking medications for months or having their nails removed. Many doctors find folk treatments incomprehensible, since they are not Food and Drug Administration-approved and have not been subjected to clinical trials.

Vicks VapoRub was effective in a small pilot study (Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine, January-February 2011). A review of treatment for nail fungus (ISRN Dermatology online, Jan. 26, 2012) concluded that Vicks VapoRub “is effective against onychomycosis (nail fungus) and is a reasonable option in patients who choose to forgo conventional treatments.”

One reader shared his success with this treatment: “I am a police officer who in 2008 bought a pair of watertight boots for duty, as some areas I patrol are marshy wetlands. On a cold wintery day, I spent the entire day in my cruiser; unbeknownst to me, my feet were cooking.

“After about three weeks, I noticed that my toenails had curled and changed color. I was in a lot of pain. Ashamed, I never sought treatment. I tried over-the-counter creams, to no avail. This continued for five years, until December 2013.

“That’s when I read about Vicks VapoRub on your website. I tried the Vicks (I hated it as a kid growing up in the early ’70s) and WOW! I got great results. I’d had handsome feet before the fungus, and now I can wear sandals in the summer again.

“So, I arrested the fungus with a warrant from your website, and the court sentenced the fungus to life, away from my handsome feet. Who would have ever thought that Vicks would do the job?”

We have written about Vicks VapoRub and many other inexpensive remedies for toenail fungus in our Guide to Hair and Nail Care. Anyone who would like a copy, please send $3 in check or money order with a long (No. 10), stamped (70 cents), self-addressed envelope to: Graedons’ People’s Pharmacy, No. H-31, P.O. Box 52027, Durham, NC 27717-2027. It also can be downloaded for $2 from our website:

Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist. Teresa Graedon holds a doctorate in medical anthropology and is a nutrition expert. Their syndicated radio show can be heard on public radio. In their column, Joe and Teresa Graedon answer letters from readers. Write to them via their website: