7 Bizarre Health Myths Your Grandparents Believed
Grandparents can generally be relied upon for various things: wisdom, disapproval regarding unsuitable boyfriends, the occasional kooky hat. (Mine could, at least.) But they can also usually be counted upon to dispense slightly disturbing and outdated medical advice — from deciding that it is definitely a good idea to douse your head in kerosene, to earnestly advising that you consume daily doses of cod liver oil as a solution to literally all of your health problems.
A lot of contemporary medical knowledge is, realistically, only a generation or two old, and our grandparents' generation was often much more connected to community and folk remedies that had been handed down through previous ancestors. Some of their health beliefs aren't such terrible ideas; after all, washing your hands before you come to the table is rarely a poor plan. Others, however, are silly, or even downright dangerous.
I can't possibly generalize for all grandparents, of course. Yours may well have been scientists who viewed the idea of rubbing camphorated oil on your chest as a cure for a cold with severe distaste. And many of these ideas are rooted in particular cultures. But, as we'll discover, some aspects of folk medicine (as it's often called) come with a certain grain of scientific truth that is gradually being uncovered by medical research. That's not to say that other remedies won't work better; but in some cases, the suggested ideas won't really hurt. Elsewhere, of course, there's the case of holy water for rabies and sugar-alcohol for weepy babies, neither of which has much scientific back-up at all — so don't ever use folk medicine as a substitute for professional medical attention. But it's not wise to automatically discount hand-me-down wisdom merely because it comes from the people who could never quite figure out how the remote control worked.
Here are seven bizarre things your grandparents may have attempted to press upon you as medical sense, none of which necessarily qualify as solid medical recommendations (or at least, not in the way they were intended to).
1. Cod Liver Oil For Everything
For many people in our grandparents' generation, cod liver oil was considered a cure-all (and yes, it is in fact derived from cod livers). A dose of the foul-tasting liquid was often administered weekly or daily, particularly to sickly children. It was thought to cure everything from arthritis and baldness to boils and piles — though you may not be surprised to know that it actually does little, if anything, to help with these conditions.
But the interesting thing is that, because of the disgusting-tasting concoction's heavy omega-3 fatty acid content, it's been determined to be good for various diverse ailments. It was particularly helpful in treating rickets in 1930s America, and a review of a study from 1848 has revealed that, weirdly enough, it may actually have been beneficial for tuberculosis patients.
2. Camphorated Oil For Colds
Having your chest rubbed with camphorated oil was a common cold cure in the early 20th century, though as Germaine Greer famously complained in 2004, camphor is exceptionally hard to get in any form now, despite its effectiveness for keeping moths away from winter clothes. The supposed benefits of camphor as a sticky, smelly rub upon the chest for the cold or flu sufferer aren't genuine, and actually have to do with the nasal passages: camphor makes the nose more sensitive, but it doesn't actually work as a decongestant or dislodge anything from the stuffed-up airways. It's also toxic in large doses and dangerous if applied to broken skin, so avoid your grandmother's attempts to administer it if you've got scratches or wounds on your chest.
3. Gripe Water For Colic
This is one of the classic hand-me-down remedies for that favorite subject of all grandparents: colicky babies. Gripe water was first invented in 1851 by the English chemist William Woodward, by combining dill seed oil, sodium bicarbonate and alcohol. It was marketed as a way of calming colic, a still-poorly understood condition in which infants cry excessively in apparent response to mysterious pains in their abdomen. Gripe water remains popular in some areas of the world as a method for soothing them, but it has no actual medicinal value whatsoever. It's not approved as a drug in the US, meaning that it can only be sold as an over-the-counter supplement; but a 2012 review of its usage indicates many risks, including the idea that it might introduce bacteria into the diet of breastfeeding infants, and the possible harm caused by alcohol and sugar in its composition. Overall, it's not exactly a shining example of grandparental wisdom.
4. Holy Water For Rabies
The use of holy intervention to cure disease is a strong part of many religions, but Christian folk medicine, particularly in Italy, has made it into an art form. The idea of pilgrimage, praying to the appropriate saint, or wearing the correct holy medals as medical aid will likely be familiar to you if you're part of certain Christian cultures, but a 2015 study of folk and religious medicine in Italy in the 19th and 20th centuries found that Italy really did it best. At that time, it was believed by some that a fever could apparently be cured by scraping and eat the dust of the church walls; rabies could be fixed by drinking holy water; malaria healed by making the sign of the cross on the spleen; and warts eliminated by going to a church you'd never visited before.
5. Cabbage For Bruises
This is another culturally specific one: in Poland, your grandmother is more than likely to view your bruises with concern and then attempt to compress them with warm cabbage leaves. Why cabbage in particular remains a mystery, but this is part of a wider folk tradition in which cabbage leaves, prepared at various temperatures, are recommended for painful situations. For example, cold cabbage leaves placed inside the bras of women experiencing painfully engorged breasts while breastfeeding are a more American folk remedy, though a 2008 study found that hot and cold compresses were more effective than bits of cabbage at relieving the pain. Poultices of various kinds have a long history in medical lore, but this is one of the soggiest to still be part of folk medicine.
6. Copper Bracelets For Arthritis
Arthritic elderly relatives may attempt to heal themselves with the power of copper bracelets and accessories — many believe that the metal has some kind of healing effect. Unfortunately, it's bogus; robust studies involving both "magnetic therapy" and copper bracelets showed no effect whatsoever on reductions in pain and discomfort in those with arthritic joints. Copper proponents say that the practice has been around for thousands of years, but a more rigorous examination by Canadian academic Brenda Harrison showed that it actually likely dates to the 1960s, and first gained popularity in the 1970s as people turned to "alternative" medicine as part of the wider hippie movement in the US. So your grandparents may think they're doing a Cleopatra, but really they're just going straight for Woodstock.
7. Olive Oil & Kerosene For Head Lice
I distinctly remember this one from my own childhood: as lice ran rampant at our primary school, teachers made it clear to parents that dousing children's heads in kerosene was not viewed as an acceptable method of treating it, and that medically-sanctioned lice treatments were the only way forward. As it turns out, kerosene head-dousing for lice is referenced as far back as 1917, despite being both disgusting and deeply dangerous if the child is anywhere near the possibility of sparks or flames. Olive oil is from the same school of treatment (the idea being that you're "drowning" the lice in a toxic substance), while another group of folk remedies recommends the complete shaving of the head. Neither is effective or useful; your grandmother does not know best on this one, so please, get her away from your head with the gas can as soon as possible.