Under My Skin

Under My Skin: Home remedies


 

"How have you been treating this?" I asked Ivan. He had a rash on his shin.

"Plantain leaves," he explained.

Plantains, of course. Fry ’em or apply ’em.

Home remedies have always intrigued me. Take Preparation H ointment. Good for bags under the eyes, they say. Also good for hemorrhoids. Really good for people who have trouble telling the difference.

Or tea tree oil. I’ve heard about that for years, but never took the time to find out what a tea tree is. A tree shaped like a "T"? A tree that grows tea? A tree made out of tea?

Turns out it is Melaleuca alternifolia, a source of traditional remedies among the indigenous Bundjalung people of Eastern Australia. (Thank you, Wikipedia.) It may kill viruses, bacteria, and fungi. And it makes a dandy shampoo.

Got poison ivy? Try jewelweed (if you can find it). Or rat vein tea (not sure I want to find that). Or boiled sweet fern. Or (of course) tea tree oil.

Do home remedies work? Truth be told, I don’t claim to know one way or the other. Anyhow, I find a different question more interesting – not whether home remedies work, but why people think they do.

The answer to that seems straightforward. People think home remedies work because other people say so. Vicks VapoRub ointment for toenail fungus? Hank says it cleared him right up! His buddy, Frankie, on the other hand, swears by apple cider vinegar for his own toenails. He’s also sure it got rid of Frankie Jr.’s head lice, although back at school, other kids complained that Frankie Jr. smelled like a salad. And his wife Franchette uses it to help reverse the signs of aging.

Which points to something about the popularity of home remedies: There is a big difference between the way patients think and the way doctors do. Many of these cures – most nowadays are either traditional, natural, or both – are supposed to be good for ... well, just about anything. The list of uses for plantains, for instance, includes rashes, wounds, ulcerations, cuts, swelling, sprains, bruises, burns, eczema, cracked lips, poison ivy, mosquito bites, diaper rash, boils, hemorrhoids, blisters, snake bites, spider bites, splinters, and thorns.

Or take another popular item, jojoba oil (that’s ho-HO-ba to you). Named by the Tohono O’odham people of the Sonoran desert (repositories of ancient wisdom, presumably), jojoba is recommended for the treatment of wrinkles; hair loss; joint pain; hemorrhoids (take note, Preparation H nonresponders!); smoker’s cough; and constipation. It also lubricates locks and engines, and it is good for covering homemade cucumbers. Look it up.

Lists like these might make a physician skeptical, prone to wonder which mechanism of action could possibly explain such disparate effects and what studies could be designed to support or refute them. Considerations like these do not generally trouble patients. If something is good, well, it’s just good, for one thing or for many. Doctors split. Patients lump.

I thought I’d heard every folk remedy there is, earnest or whimsical, until Tibor came by last month. A well-spoken gent with a thick, Hungarian accent, Tibor pulled up his shirt and showed me a lot of eczema.

"Two things make it better," he explained. "The first thing, I swim every day in a chlorinated pool to cool it off."

That was a surprise, considering how many eczema patients are convinced that chlorine makes them worse.

And the second?

"Yogurt," he said. "I put on nonfat yogurt." But not just any nonfat yogurt.

"I tried all different kinds," Tibor went on. "I tried flavored yogurt, I tried Greek yogurt. But the best is plain nonfat yogurt."

A controlled experiment!

I asked Tibor where he got the idea for applying yogurt to his rash.

"My mother suggested some kind of peasant remedy when I was a kid," he said. "It may have been sour cream."

So it was some kind of rash, treated with something dairy. I tried to picture little Tibor covered with sour cream. I couldn’t.

"I put the yogurt on last night," said Tibor, proudly rolling up his sleeve to show me an almost eczema-free arm. "See how well it works!"

Anecdotal, perhaps, but still impressive. It cures eczema! It lowers cholesterol! It’s on sale!

Take that, tea tree oil.

Dr. Rockoff practices dermatology in Brookline, Mass.

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