Before the development of modern medicine, people had no choice but to come up with their own host of remedies and treatments to heal sick or injured family members. Just a century ago, some families had limited access to care because of the distance required to see a doctor; here in the early 21st century, the soaring cost of medical care and lack of access to health insurance may lead the sickly to skip the trip altogether. When seeing a doctor was simply out of the question, these folk remedies provided comfort.
Now that science and evidence-based practices have given us safer and more effective alternatives, many traditional cures have fallen by the wayside. But many of the more well-known folk cures are still in use. Learn why they often do more harm them good, despite the best intentions of practitioners and traditional healers.
10: Buttered Burns
Burned your hand grabbing a hot pot on the stove? Better not break out the butter. While plenty of folks believe butter soothes the pain of a burn, this common folk remedy could actually cause more harm than good. Slathering butter on a burn introduces bacteria, which increases the risk of infection [source: CDC Burns]. Butter, salves and similar burn treatments can also trap heat under the skin, making a burn worse by driving damage to deeper dermal layers, transforming a relatively minor burn into one that lingers and leaves lasting damage [source: Dallas].
A buttery coating can also get in the way when medical professionals attempt to inspect a burn, delaying treatment and leaving victims to suffer longer than they would have if the wound were kept clear. Fortunately, burn care recommendations are surprisingly simple and don't require you to dip into your refrigerator. To soothe the initial pain of a burn, run the affected appendage under cool water and seek professional care.
9: Ear Candling
Suffering from excess earwax but don't want to make a trip to the doctor's office? While ear candling proponents promise it'll remove unwanted wax, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration warns against the practice, especially when it involves kids. Fans of ear candling use a hollow candle to drip hot wax into the ear, which supposedly creates a negative pressure that funnels out ear wax and cures a host of other ailments, from sinus troubles to cancer.
Unfortunately, not only is there no evidence to support these claims, but there have also been plenty of reports of injury associated with candling, from candle wax hardening and blocking the ear canal to burns and punctured eardrums [source: FDA]. If your ears feel a little clogged, keep in mind that the body has its own efficient system for eliminating excess wax — and only a doctor should poke around in your ears.
And yes, that means keeping cotton swabs far away from your ear canal too. Sure, they're perfect for cleaning the outer parts of your ear, but they're also linked to perforated eardrums, wax impaction and a laundry list of other injuries [source: Hobson and Lavy].
8: Powdered Lead
Lead poisoning often comes with tragic consequences, including intellectual disability, illness and death. While lead paint remains the main culprit behind American children's exposure, lead-filled folk remedies were the second-biggest source as of 2008 [source: AP]. Among members of the Hispanic community, powdered folk cures known as greta or azarcon remain popular treatments for children suffering from stomachaches or teething pain. These bright orange powders, which kids consume orally, consist of up to 90 percent lead, making them extremely dangerous, especially considering that any amount of lead in the blood poses a risk [source: CDC Folk].
Of course, lead-laced folk remedies aren't limited to any certain culture. Some Indian immigrants use a fine brown powder called ghasard, which is mixed into a tonic to cure illness, while the Chinese turn to a similar product they call ba-baw-san. In Thai and Myanmar cultures, this remedy is known as Daw Tway and is used to aid digestion. These and other folk cures are often filled with heavy metals, including lead and arsenic, and should never be ingested or given to children [source: CDC Folk].
More Terrible Folk Cures
7: Flaming Lice
For centuries, people supposedly in the know have treated head lice by dousing the head with gasoline, kerosene, turpentine and other noxious, dangerous chemicals. While it's possible that these folk cures work to banish bugs, they also come with a host of dangers, including severe burns, scars and even death.
Remember, it takes only a tiny spark to ignite certain fuels, so covering any part of your body in gasoline is never a good idea. A simple spark from a cigarette or an electrical appliance can leave you engulfed in flames — making head lice seem like less of a problem. Even if the fuel doesn't ignite, it's still much too harsh to apply to the scalp or skin and can cause painful burning and irritation.
Some may argue that this down-home cure was good enough for past generations, so it's good enough for the more recent ones. Keep in mind, however, that affordable, effective lice treatments can be found over the counter at virtually any drugstore, offering a much safer and more effective solution than those available to previous generations [source: Mikkelson].
6: Colloidal Silver
Colloidal silver is an alternative medicine used to treat an impossibly large range of ailments, from skin rashes to intestinal disorders to HIV. Consisting of silver droplets suspended in some form of liquid, it may be ingested orally as a supplement or applied to the skin. Despite supporters' claims that this product is safe because it's "natural" — so are radon and belladonna — this home remedy is not effective at treating any disease or condition.
In addition to being totally ineffective, colloidal silver comes with some serious side effects because of the way it accumulates in the body — similar to what happens when a person ingests mercury. Eventually, the buildup of silver leads to a condition known as argyria, where the skin turns a nasty shade of blue-gray. Even worse, this blue-gray shade is irreversible, leaving victims with a permanently strange pallor. Just look at Paul Karason, a man the media dubbed "Papa Smurf" thanks to his blue hue, which he developed after drinking 10 ounces (0.3 liters) of colloidal silver a day for several years [source: James].
This discoloration can also spread to the eyes and nails, but worse, too much colloidal silver use can damage major organs like the kidneys and liver [source: NCCIH].
5: Poisoning Remedies
Almost every bit of medical folklore related to poisoning is flat wrong, and many popular home remedies for poisoning are actually more dangerous than the substance originally ingested. For example, forcing someone to vomit after swallowing the wrong thing? Nope, bad plan, as some substances can cause even greater damage on the way back up, especially corrosive substances.
What about swallowing a bit of baking soda to neutralize the toxins? Even worse, as too much baking soda consumed on its own can be fatal. It would take only about 1 tablespoon to seriously alter body chemistry in an infant, and yes, baking powder is equally as ineffective and dangerous in terms of dealing with accidental poisoning.
Other concoctions, including drinking milk, eating butter or slurping raw eggs aren't necessarily harmful, but they do little to help someone with a belly full of poison and are likely to make an unpleasant experience even less enjoyable for the patient. In a case like this, it's time to throw folk remedies to the wind and call the experts at your local poison control center [source: Illinois Poison Center].
Even More Awful Folk Cures to Avoid
4: Sunken Soft Spot Solutions
If you've spent any time around a newborn, you're probably familiar with that slightly scary-looking soft spot at the top of its head, which endures until the child is around 2 years old. While this soft area, or fontanelle, is perfectly natural, some cultures worry that certain actions can cause it to drop, resulting in extreme injury or death.
In parts of Mexico, for example, mothers fear pulling the baby from the breast or bottle too soon, as this is thought to cause to caida de la morella, or fallen fontanelle. When this happens, some folk remedies to treat the condition include shaking the baby, reaching into the mouth and pressing up on the palate, or holding the baby upside-down and striking its feet [source: Bernstein and Bernstein].
All of these so-called cures can be dangerous and will do nothing to fix a supposedly fallen soft spot. A truly sunken fontanelle — when the spot noticeably dips down on its own instead of gently curving inward when touched — can be a medical emergency, often brought on by malnutrition or dehydration [source: NIH Fontanelles]. If you believe your baby has suffered an injury to the fontanelle, or something doesn't seem quite right, make haste to the nearest doctor's office and lay off the dubious folk cures.
3: Smoked Ear Canals
One popular folk remedy in the United States involves using tobacco to cure a painful earache. While most versions of the treatment require you to simply take a puff of a cigarette and blow the smoke into the affected ear, some more extreme versions require you to stuff a wad of moist tobacco into the ear canal itself.
Of course, blowing tobacco smoke into the ear does nothing to heal or resolve an earache, though it's unlikely to harm the patient all that much, and some even argue that it promotes bonding between parent and child [source: UAMS]. Of course, this remedy comes with the same risks associated with all secondhand smoke exposure, so it's probably not the best solution for long-term health. Obviously, stuffing anything into the ear canal — including tobacco — is a huge no-no and likely to do much more harm than good.
Interestingly enough, some studies have shown that children exposed to second-hand smoke actually report more frequent earaches than those who avoid tobacco smoke, so it's possible that repeated attempts at this classic folk treatment could actually make earaches worse [source: Lee et al.]. For best results, keep tobacco smoke far from kids and stick to more traditional earache remedies found at the pharmacy or doctor's office.
2: Medium Rare Ice Pack
In the world of cartoons, the best way to treat a black eye is to slap on a big slab of beef — preferably a raw steak. In some way, it kind of makes sense: The meat can draw out the fluid, reduce swelling and ease pain.
But while the standard black eye can easily be treated at home in most cases, you should never put steak — or any other meat — on the eye. Not only is it a waste of an expensive piece of beef, but there's absolutely no evidence that a steak will help reduce the pain, swelling or duration of a black eye. Even worse, the bacteria in the meat can actually lead to painful infections, transforming a simple black eye into a lingering condition [source: AAO]. Instead, stick to a basic ice pack, or grab a bag of frozen veggies in a pinch.
So where did this meaty myth originate? It's possible it dates back to the days before refrigeration, when meat was relatively plentiful and ice was tough to obtain. In those days, it may have made sense to preserve the precious ice supply and treat a black eye with a bit of beef [source: Israel].
1: Troubling Teething Treatments
When faced with a crying baby, many people will do absolutely anything to make the tears stop, especially when the baby is in pain. In many cultures, rubbing a bit of brandy or whiskey on aching gums is the best way to soothe a teething infant, at least according to folklore.
Despite its deep-seated roots, this advice actually runs contrary to expert opinions warning that parents should never rub alcohol on a child's gums. There's simply no safe amount of alcohol for little ones, and even minor exposure can cause serious health concerns in young children.
Instead, gently rub the gums with a cool, wet washcloth to soothe the pain and bond with your little one, or use cold — not frozen — teething rings to ease the baby's discomfort [sources: NIH Teething, Shu]. If your child is struggling with sleep-interrupting tooth and gum pain and these DIY remedies aren't quite cutting it, ask your doctor whether it's safe to use an over-the-counter pain reliever or a gel made specifically for teething babies.
HowStuffWorks presents 10 stories of people who experienced really bad luck, like Pete Best, Ron Wayne and Richard Jewell.
Author's Note: 10 Folk Cures You Should Never Try
I had my first child eight months ago and have been helping her through some painful teething for the past two months or so. While she is now the proud owner of five teeth, these pearly whites did not come easy. Throughout the process, I've been faced with frequent suggestions from well-meaning friends and family — including other young moms — that just a bit of brandy or whiskey would be just the thing to soothe her aching gums. I know that this simply isn't the right choice for my daughter, but I've been surprised to learn just how common the practice is, and how many people I know used it with success on their own babies. It's certainly made me curious just how many kids out there are treated with other potentially dangerous folk cures — from "curing" lice by dousing the head with gasoline to slathering butter on a burn.
- American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO). "Black Eye Treatment." EyeSmart. 2015. (Jan. 5, 2015) http://www.geteyesmart.org/eyesmart/diseases/black-eye-treatment.cfm
- Associated Press (AP). "Health Officials: 'Folk' Medicine Leading Cause of Lead Poisoning in U.S. Children." Fox News. Jan. 22, 2008. (Jan. 5, 2015) http://www.foxnews.com/story/2008/01/22/health-officials-folk-medicine-leading-cause-lead-poisoning-in-us-children/
- Bernstein, Edward and Judith Bernstein. "Case Studies in Emergency Medicine and the Health of the Public." Jones and Bartlett Learning. 1996. (Jan. 5, 2015) https://books.google.com/books?id=NXRXj1AbncUC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). "Burns." (Jan. 5, 2015) http://www.cdc.gov/masstrauma/factsheets/public/burns.pdf
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). "Folk Medicine." Oct. 13, 2013. (Jan. 5, 2015) http://www.cdc.gov/nceh/lead/tips/folkmedicine.htm
- Dallas, Mary Elizabeth. "Tips for Beating BBQ Burns." HealthDay. July 22, 2014. (Jan. 6, 2015) http://consumer.healthday.com/general-health-information-16/burn-health-news-87/tips-for-beating-bbq-burns-689455.html
- Dolan, Maura. "Folk Remedies Often Turn Out to Be Prescriptions for Danger." Los Angeles Times. July 10, 1989. (Jan. 5, 2015) http://articles.latimes.com/1989-07-10/news/mn-2542_1_folk-remedy
- Hobson, Jonathan C. and Jeremy A. Lavy. "Use and Abuse of Cotton Buds." Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. Vol. 98, No. 8. Pages 360-361. August 2005. (April 1, 2015) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1181836/
- Illinois Poison Center. "The Case of the Home Remedy." Illinois Poison Center Blog. June 17, 2014. (Jan. 5, 2015) http://ipcblog.org/2014/06/17/the-case-of-the-home-remedy/
- Israel, David K. "Should You Really Put a Steak on a Shiner?" Mental Floss. Nov. 12, 2009. (Jan. 5, 2015) http://mentalfloss.com/article/23246/should-you-really-put-steak-shiner
- James, Susan Donaldson. "Internet Sensation 'Papa Smurf' Dies; Other Blue People Live On." ABC News. Sept. 25, 2013. (April 1, 2015) http://abcnews.go.com/Health/internet-sensation-papa-smurf-dies-blue-people-live/story?id=20368758
- Lee, D.J. et al. "Secondhand Smoke and Earaches in Adolescents: The Florida Youth Cohort Study." Nicotine and Tobacco Research. Vol. 5, No. 6. Pages 943-946. December 2003. (Jan. 5, 2015) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14668078
- Mikkelson, Barbara. "Burnt Offering." Snopes. May 10, 2009. (Jan. 5, 2015) http://www.snopes.com/medical/homecure/lice.asp
- National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH). "Colloidal Silver." Sept. 2014. (Jan. 5, 2015) http://nccam.nih.gov/health/silver
- Shu, Jennifer. "How Can I Soothe a Teething Baby's Gums?" CNN. Dec. 9, 2008. (Jan. 5, 2015) http://www.cnn.com/2008/HEALTH/expert.q.a/12/01/baby.teething.gums/
- Taylor, Varro E. "Hoosier Home Remedies." Purdue University Press. 1985.
- University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS). "Can Blowing Smoke Into a Child's Ear Cure an Ear Infection or Is It Dangerous?" 2015. (Jan. 5, 2015) http://www.uamshealth.com/?id=881&sid=1
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). "Don't Get Burned: Stay Away From Ear Candles." Feb. 18, 2010. (Jan. 5, 2015) http://www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/ucm200277.htm
- U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH). "Fontanelles — Sunken." Feb. 21, 2013. (Jan. 6, 2015) http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003309.htm
- U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH). "Teething." Nov. 12, 2012. (Jan. 5, 2015) http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/002045.htm