We’ve covered some of the best and worst home remedies in depth, but now it’s time for a lightning round: Should you feed a cold and starve a fever? Drink cranberry juice to prevent UTIs? Hold your breath to halt your hiccups? Let’s see, shall we?
Epsom salt baths
Epsom salts, or magnesium sulfate (no relation to table salt) are also known as “bath salts” because they are often dissolved in a warm bath to soothe sore muscles. There’s no evidence that your body absorbs any of the minerals through your skin, though, so don’t think of these baths as medicinal. That said, warm baths can feel good on sore muscles, and scented bath salts are a great way to make a relaxing experience more pleasant.
Baking soda for heartburn
If you have heartburn or “indigestion,” an alkaline substance like baking soda can sometimes help to relieve your symptoms. But baking soda is not the best choice. It can make you feel even more uncomfortable because of the way it expands in your stomach, and it’s not appropriate if you’re trying to avoid sodium in your diet (its scientific formula is sodium bicarbonate). Better to grab a different type of antacid.
Vitamin C for colds
If you chug orange juice or take vitamin C pills when you have a cold, you’re not alone. But the idea that vitamin C boosts your immunity never had very strong evidence behind it, and it hasn’t stood up very well to scientific studies. People who regularly take vitamin C may have slightly shorter colds than people who don’t — by just a few hours — but even in that case, starting to take vitamin C after you get sick doesn’t seem to help.
Warm milk for sleep
The Sleep Foundation says that warm milk “may” help you sleep, and that’s about the strongest recommendation you’ll find. People tend to find a cup of warm milk soothing, but the usual explanation — that the tryptophan in the milk makes you sleepy — doesn’t add up. There isn’t that much tryptophan in milk, and there’s no easy way for it to get into a place where it can send sleepy messages to your brain. Another theory holds that warm milk’s power is all in its association in our mind: We think it will make us sleepy, so it gets us in a sleepy mood.
Witch hazel for hemorrhoids
Witch hazel is a plant, but you probably know it from the liquid extract you can buy at the drugstore — between the rubbing alcohol and the hydrogen peroxide. Witch hazel is an astringent, meaning it dries out and temporarily tightens skin or other tissues.
There isn’t much evidence on witch hazel for hemorrhoids, but what we have suggests it may reduce itching, pain, and bleeding. To use it, put some witch hazel on a cotton pad or a piece of toilet paper, and pat it on. You can also buy wipes or pads that are already treated with witch hazel.
Ginger ale for nausea
When you feel like you’re going to throw up, ginger ale can be a comforting thing to drink. But does it actually help nausea?
There is some evidence that ginger root may help with nausea from pregnancy or after anesthesia. It doesn’t seem to help nearly as much with nausea that comes from illness. But ginger ale may not contain real ginger root at all, or the dose might be very small. So if ginger ale helps you feel better when you’re sick, chances are it’s more about the comfort and familiarity and placebo effect — which means you’re free to drink a different beverage if you prefer.
Feed a cold, starve a fever
This is an archaic idea, from the era when body fluids and functions were categorised as to whether they are “hot” or “cold.” Fevers are hot, and blood is considered to hold heat, so bloodletting was part of how you would treat a fever. The idea of “starving” a fever was inspired by the same idea: Remove your body’s fuel, and the fire won’t burn as hot. On the other hand, if you’re leaking mucus from your nose, you have a “cold” and the treatments would be entirely different.
We know now that colds are caused by viruses, and that a fever is one way our body may respond to an infection (by a virus or otherwise). You can have a “cold” and a fever at the same time. You also can’t bring down a fever by fasting, even if you wanted to. So whichever you have, eat normally (if you can) to provide your body with the nutrients it needs.
Cranberry juice for UTIs
Cranberry juice is rumoured to be able to prevent or even treat urinary tract infections (UTIs). Fun fact: Ocean Spray, which produces cranberry products, has also funded a good bit of the research on cranberries and UTIs.
So is the rumour true? Studies have not found that cranberry juice can treat a UTI, so if you’re already feeling the burn, go to urgent care rather than the grocery store. As for prevention, the jury is still out. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists notes this, but their top tips for UTI prevention are even simpler: Stay hydrated, pee when you feel the urge, and wash the skin around your anus and genital area. (Peeing after sex does not make the list, either.)
Ice for a bruise
If you just whacked your shin on something and are pretty sure it’s going to bruise, ice can help to keep the swelling down and reduce the eventual size of the bruise.
Chamomile tea to help you sleep
As famous as chamomile tea is for helping people get to sleep — one chamomile-containing blend is even sold as Sleepytime Tea — the evidence is minimal. One 2019 review of six studies found that chamomile improved sleep quality, but didn’t help people with insomnia to get more sleep. If you find it relaxing, enjoy; but if it doesn’t seem to be working…it’s probably not.
Cucumber slices for puffy eyes
Cucumber slices over the eyes are an iconic beauty treatment, but we don’t have any clinical evidence supporting this practice with cucumbers specifically. Cucumbers contain plenty of nutritious chemical compounds, like vitamin C, but is there enough of them to do anything when applied topically? That’s pretty unlikely.
Instead, it seems that what we’re doing when we put cucumbers on our eyes is that we’re applying something cool and wet, which can feel good and may very slightly reduce puffiness temporarily. But if you don’t want to waste a cucumber, you can just use a cool gel pack or wet washcloth.
Aloe for burns
Aloe-containing lotions can be soothing on a burn, and it’s not uncommon to keep an aloe plant around so you can break off a leaf when you burn yourself in the kitchen. But is the aloe really doing anything special?
Studies have been inconclusive. It seems like aloe may be a good substitute for other burn ointments in places where those other ointments aren’t easily available. Aloe provides a moist covering to the wound, which helps healing.
The American Academy of Family Physicians says the best treatment for a minor burn is to run it under cool water for 20 minutes. After that, you can apply “aloe vera cream or antibiotic ointment.” If the burn is deep, if it blisters, or if it is in a sensitive area of the body like the genitals or face, seek medical help.
Apple cider vinegar for poison ivy
There are tons of home remedies for poison ivy, but what really matters is that you wash off the urushiol (the irritating oil) as thoroughly as possible. Dish soap or a regular bar soap works to get the oil off your skin, but be careful that you don’t spread the oil to your hands or to other surfaces in the process. Your clothes should go into the washing machine, if possible. The good news is that you have several hours after contacting the plant before it starts to form a rash, so it’s fine to shower after your hike rather than resorting to impromptu remedies while you’re still in the woods.
With that understood, it’s a lot easier to figure out which poison ivy remedies make sense. Should you pour vinegar on your shins immediately after touching the plant? No! It won’t do anything to remove the oil, and might even spread it. Once you already have a rash, the American Association of Dermatology recommends calamine lotion, hydrocortisone cream, colloidal oatmeal, cool compresses, and antihistamines.
Sex to relieve menstrual cramps
There’s lots of anecdotal evidence that sex can relieve cramps, which means that people have tried it and said it works. But if you’re looking for studies to support the idea, there doesn’t seem to be anything out there. Doctors have often gone on the record saying that endorphins or oxytocin from an orgasm can potentially relieve cramps, but oxytocin can also increase cramping — meaning you shouldn’t expect it to be a guaranteed cure. Sex can sometimes cause cramping all on its own, especially if the cervix is touched during sex.
So this one falls squarely into the “try it and see” category. If sex (partnered or solo) helps your cramps, then great! But if it doesn’t, that doesn’t mean anything is wrong.
Holding your breath to stop hiccups
The home remedies for hiccups are probably more numerous, and sillier than for any other condition. Personally, I’ve never found any of them to work, but the process of running through every hiccup cure you can think of keeps you busy and provides entertainment to others in your household.
Clinical research on hiccups focuses on people who have recurrent or intractable courses of hiccups. These people are not necessarily like the rest of us: Often the hiccups turn out to be triggered by another medical condition, like heartburn or even a tumour that is irritating the vagus nerve. Treating that condition tends to resolve the hiccups.
So we don’t have solid evidence that any of our home hiccup cures are helpful for ordinary cases of hiccups. A 2015 review of hiccup treatments identify a few treatments that seem to be effective, at least sometimes:
- “Respiratory manoeuvres” like holding your breath or breathing into a paper bag
- Vagal stimulation like applying cold to the face or having somebody scare you (a frozen steak on the chest would likely have a similar effect)
- Nasopharyngeal stimulation, like sniffing ammonia or putting vinegar up your nose (a new use for those smelling salts I keep in my home gym!)
So, do these cures work? We don’t know for sure. But now you have a few more to try the next time you have hiccups.