9 Historical Cold “Cures” That You Won’t Believe People Actually Used

by JR Thorpe
Gerrit Dou/Frans van Mieris/Wikimedia Commons

The beginning of colder weather is a lovely time for many of us — so many new sweaters to wear and pumpkins to buy! — but it's also the start of sniffles, sore throats, and coughs. Yep, cold season is coming. The common cold has been a part of recorded human history for thousands of years, and we're not any closer to "curing" it. (Because the cold is a virus, pretty much the only "cure" is to let it run its course while staying hydrated and marathoning Netflix.) But back in the day, people used to try anything to stop the virus is in its tracks — and it's probably good that these old-fashioned cold cures from history aren't a thing anymore.

The logic behind a lot of old-fashioned cold medicine is understandable, if not based in science. Take the medieval system: a cold seems as if it comes from a cool body, so it stands to reason that "hot" foods and substances might cause a cure. Unfortunately we now know that's not how viruses work, but anybody who's had a sauna or a steamy bath while they're feeling particularly unwell can testify that the idea of heat is pretty nice. In execution, though, a lot of old-fashioned remedies were, well, rather far of the mark. Grab your hot toddy and prepare to be a bit disgusted.


Wolf Liver In Wine & Frog Legs In Their Own Juices

Ancient Roman physician Pliny the Elder's Natural History is a pretty skeptical record of all the folk medicine he could find, and there were some very interesting ideas around about how to cure cold symptoms. Coughs, he noted, were supposed to be relieved by "a wolf's liver, administered in mulled wine," complete with spices to make it more palatable.

If that didn't work, you could always eat frog legs "stewed in their own liquor," or drink horse saliva — for three days. He also notes more practical ideas about honey as a soothing medicine, something that modern science supports, so poor sniffling Romans did have a bit of relief.


Vomiting Up Excess Phlegm

From ancient Greece to the late Renaissance in Europe, ideas about colds drew on bigger theories about the body in general. Health, it was believed, depended on the balance of four humors in the body: yellow bile, black bile, blood, and phlegm. Too much phlegm meant a cold — which is a pretty fair observation, considering how much mucus a cold can produce.

To get the body "back into balance," though, it was thought that you needed to get rid of the excess phlegm. And to do that you had to "purge" it — ideally by vomiting. Charming.


Concentrated Red Wine

In the late middle ages in Italy, the physician Taddeo Alderotti advocated for a magnificent cure-all he called aqua vite. It was, he claimed, "marvellous against all cold affections." To make it, you took the "best red wine," then distilled it multiple times until it was incredibly concentrated, up to 10 times. Three or four distillations, he said, was suitable to cure any cold. This process is pretty similar to how one makes homemade brandy, which is probably why people felt better after drinking it.


Fried Food

Frans van Mieris the Elder/Wikimedia Commons

Diet was very important for the curing of diseases in the medieval period, because foods could be classified as "hot" or "cold" and prompt or suppress different levels of the humors in the body. To battle the cooling effects of too much phlegm, medieval physicians recommended, you had to change your food. One text advises "avoiding all things moist and watery, all fruits, all oils, all fish, broths, egg-yolk, and bones", and opting instead for a diet of purely hot or fried food. Sounds tasty, but probably not very medicinally helpful.


Huge Quantities Of Mustard And Horseradish

In the Renaissance, various foodstuffs were believed to create effects in the body that related to temperature. Cold humors "narrowed" bodily passages, the belief went, while hot ones "expanded" them. So it stood to reason that if you had too much phlegm, you should eat some seriously hot foods to open yourself up again. Mustard and horseradish were on the menu, as were liquorice and strong artichokes. If you started sweating and coughing, all the better.


Roasted Mouse

A collection of old-fashioned superstitions in the United Kingdom notes that mouse seemed to feature pretty strongly in cold cures for several centuries. Children who got ill would be served fried, roasted or baked mouse, and in one regional version, the mouse was skinned and the flesh fried before being fed to the sick kid.


Milk With Onions In It

Gerrit Dou/Wikimedia Commons

In Southern Appalachia, old-fashioned folk remedies around colds apparently often relied on onions. People who turned up with coughs and sneezes were encouraged to eat them raw, but if they balked at that (reasonably enough), they were given a glass of milk with a slice of onion in it. Variations on this remedy date back centuries, including having sliced onions in your socks or shoes as a protection against catching a cold in the first place.


Goose Grease & Molasses

Rubbing camphorated oil on your chest used to be a common way to encourage coughing and help subdue colds, though it's no longer legally sold in the U.S.. However, if you'd really like a replacement, your local butcher will likely help out. Various places in North America, including Newfoundland, have used another remedy in the past: rubbing yourself in goose grease under a layer of brown paper or flannel. The grease or fat of a cooked goose was ideally meant to be "fresh and warm," but it was also saved specifically for the purpose. It was commonly rubbed on the chests of people stricken with colds well into the 20th century.


Unwashed Lamb's Hair In Brandy

A lot of American folk medicine for colds, according to a compendium from 1980, is sweet or at least pretty inoffensive: wearing nutmeg around your neck to prevent catching one, for instance, or digging a hole for a rusty nail six feet from your house to make symptoms go away. However, the book also records one cure from Utah in 1932 that raises a lot of questions: wearing "unwashed lamb's hair" that's been dunked in brandy around your neck to help a sore throat. You'd assume that the dirty wool and wet brandy would do more harm than good.


Overall, there's nothing that gets human imagination going more than a cold cure. But it hasn't exactly resulted in success. Rather than using any of the historical "remedies" on this list, try getting lots of rest and fluids if you're feeling under the weather.