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Grandma’s winter health tips – facts and fiction

Life BC (before Calpol) involved a whole host of bizarre snuffle-soothers. But do grandma’s remedies actually work?


Posted: 1 October 2012
by Susan Walls

Grandma's cold comforts

IN THE DAYS before antibiotics, Grandma had some weird and wonderful ways of dealing with childhood coughs and colds. Most of these cures were foul-smelling. Many featured old socks, slices of bacon, and raw onions.

But do any of them stand up to scrutiny in the quick-fix culture of the 21st century? “Some of Grandma’s remedies still hold true,” says paediatrician Dr Lillian Beard, an expert on traditional treatments. But which remedies actually work? We test some of Grandma’s best cold comforters...

Coughs and chest infections
GRANDMA’S REMEDY
For babies, take a cinder from the fire and place in a cup of water. When cool, give a drop of cinder water on a spoon. For older children, rub goose grease onto the chest and back area before covering with brown paper or a vest.
THE DOCTOR SAYS
Placing cinders in water creates sulphur water, which was a popular tonic in the days before antibiotics became available. Sulphur contains powerful anti-infective agents, but too much can be dangerous, so don’t try this at home. As for the goose grease, this was a staple product in grandma’s winter-remedy store cupboard. It’s a great heat insulator, but probably smells dreadful! Grease is also a good way to protect skin from other remedies, such as a ‘mustard plaster’. As a child, I had a mustard plaster whenever I got a nasty wheezy cough. You coat your child’s chest in a greasy substance, such as goose grease or Vaseline, before applying a paste of mustard powder, flour and water on a piece of muslin. Then wrap your child in big bath towels, tent up the bedclothes over her head, and encourage her to inhale the mustard vapours. It was a miserable way to spend the night, but the next day my congestion was gone and I always felt so much better.

Colds and flu
GRANDMA’S REMEDY
At the first sign of a cold, make a ‘bacon plaster’ for your child to wear day and night, especially to school. Take a slice of fatty bacon cut off the joint, place between two pieces of muslin or cheesecloth, and attach it to his chest with tape. He may protest at the smell, which can be potent, but the bacon keeps the chest clear, and wards off congestion. A big saucepan of chicken soup will also do wonders by opening up the airways and soothing cold symptoms.
THE DOCTOR SAYS
Salty bacon is used in many cultures to treat inflammation. Perhaps the saltiness of the bacon helps to keep the chest clear, but it’s more likely that the fatty meat ensures the child’s chest area stays nice and warm.
Interestingly, bacon appears in many effective traditional cures. You can make a splinter come to a head with a piece of bacon, and the saltiness reduces the swelling around the wound. Meanwhile, salt is used in many ways to treat the symptoms of colds. For earache, one of grandma’s favourite remedies was to heat salt over the fire, then pour it into a sock and tie it to the child’s ear. The salt would ease inflammation and fight infection. As for chicken soup, it seems the mix of fats and spices in the broth has a particularly soothing effect on colds and congestion.

Grandma's cold comforts
Sore throat
GRANDMA’S REMEDY
Time to grab those trusty onions. According to grandma, half an onion wrapped in a sweaty sock and tied around your child’s neck should cure a sore throat in a day. Some families also tie a piece of fatty bacon around their child’s neck with the leg of a stocking. The child then gargles with warm salt water before bed and leaves the bacon in place overnight.
THE DOCTOR SAYS
Salt has great anti-bacterial properties and bacteria simply can’t survive in a salty environment. I still recommend that children with tonsillitis gargle with salt water, as well as taking prescribed antibiotics. I’m not sure about the bacon round the neck, though. Perhaps grandma believed that the saltiness of the bacon would have a similar effect as gargling with salt. And as for the sweaty sock – well, ritual played a vital role in many traditional cures.

Whooping cough
GRANDMA’S REMEDY
If your child has whooping cough, pass him under a donkey’s belly, or take him for a donkey ride along the seafront. If that fails, place him before the fire and rub his feet liberally with hog’s lard or goose grease. Then give him four live woodlice in a spoonful of jam or treacle, and the ‘whoop’ will vanish. Or, catch and skin a field mouse, make a small pie for your child to eat, and strap the skin of the mouse to his throat – furry side down – for nine days.
THE DOCTOR SAYS
Many of grandma’s cures are tried and true. Others have been tried and abandoned. Among the ones that didn’t make the grade are these strange remedies for whooping cough. In the days before immunisation, whooping cough was a serious winter disease – nearly all children caught it at some point and many died. Of course, donkey rides can’t cure whooping cough, but there is something to be said for getting the afflicted child out of the house and away from the rest of the family. Whooping cough is highly infectious: if one sibling has whooping cough, you can almost guarantee the rest will follow. And perhaps the fresh sea air made ill children feel better, so long as they were wrapped up against the cold. As for live woodlice and skinned field mice – clearly these have no medical benefit whatsoever.

Fever
GRANDMA’S REMEDY
Cut a raw onion in half and secure one piece to the sole of each foot. You can tuck the pieces inside the fevered child’s socks, but make sure the vegetable touches the underside of her feet. For babies, mash a garlic clove and rub the liquid into the soles of her feet.
THE DOCTOR SAYS
Garlic and onion come from the Allium group of plants, which have excellent anti-inflammatory properties. Onions do seem to draw fever from the body. Once, a young patient of mine was brought to my office with onions ‘cooking’ on her feet.
By the time she arrived, her high fever had abated, but the smell was overwhelming. Recently, scientists have made another important discovery about avoiding winter colds – have a good laugh. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, Pennsylvania, found that happy people are three times less likely to catch a cold. So this winter, strap some bacon to your chest and eat a spoonful of woodlice. It won’t stop you getting a cold, but the comedy value will make the rest of your family feel so much better...

Resources

Further reading

  • Salt In Your Sock, And Other Tried-and-True Home Remedies by Lillian M Beard, Three Rivers Press, £7
  • Curious Cures Of Old Yorkshire by Dulcie Lewis, Countryside Books, £8. Includes some of the oddest folklore from the north of England

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