From Windex to chicken soup to vinegar, experts sound off on your favorite home remedies.
By Denise Mann
Reviewed By Michael Smith
Everyone has one -- usually one that they swear by.
We are talking about home remedies.
Whether it's toothpaste to treat a pimple or the household cleaner Windex to treat anything and everything from poison ivy to baldness as seen in the recent blockbuster movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding, one thing is clear: Home remedies abound.
But do they really work? Does toothpaste or Windex really have any miracle ingredients? We asked top specialists what they had to say about your favorite home remedies. Here's what we found out:
Windex as a Panacea?
Don't dump out your medicine closet and rely solely on Windex glass cleaner for all that ails you, cautions Kansas City, Mo. dermatologist Audrey Kunin, MD. That said, she adds, it's the glass cleaner's active ingredients including ammonium hydroxide and rubbing alcohol can help dry out poison ivy and prevent bacterial infections that can follow some rashes. "Overuse, however, could irritate or burn the skin," she says.
Whatever you do, don't go out and adopt a Chihuahua to cure your asthma, says Christopher Bates, MD, assistant professor of medicine at National Jewish Medical Center in Denver, Colo. It's not that they are any more likely than other pets to cause asthma, but they certainly don't prevent it as common folklore suggests, he says. "Some cultures believe Chihuahuas take your asthma away from you and that's not true," he says.
There is some evidence that if you're having an asthma attack and you can't get to yourprescribed medicine, two to four cups of black coffee can help, he says. "Coffee contains a substance related to an asthma drug called theophylline," he says. "But a recent study showed that this really made no difference in terms of emergency room visits," he adds.
"Asthma can be aggravated by cold dry air and the only tried and true home remedy is boiling a kettle of hot water on stove and putting a towel over your head and inhaling the steam because the warm humidified air is good for asthmatic lungs," he says. If you have asthma, make sure your medications are with you at all times and if you suspect that you have asthma, see a doctor to get the proper diagnosis and treatment, he says.
Grandma was right! Chicken soup may be good for more than just your soul. Many of us swear that it can cure us of colds and flus, and according to Jim Jones, MD, professor of pediatrics at National Jewish Medical and Research Center in Denver, Colo., it may do just that.
"A consequence of cold and flus is that the body loses fluid and what chicken soup has in it is a lot of salt and other minerals, so if you replace the fluid you feel better and the salt helps retain water," he tells WebMD. "You need calories to get better and to produce the new proteins and antibodies that help you get over the infection," he says.
So don't count on zinc, echinacea, and other vitamins and minerals alone to relieve colds or flus. Stay home and eat lots of chicken soup or other foods with salt and you could be feeling fine in no time.
"Grandma's advice is wrong: Using hydrogen peroxide and letting a cut 'dry out' is not beneficial to the healing process," says David J. Leffell, MD, chief of dermatologic and laser surgery at Yale-New Haven Hospital in Connecticut and author of Total Skin. "Moist wounds will heal up to 50% faster than wounds that dry out and develop a scab," he says.
Hydrogen peroxide actually kills healthy skin cells and delays healing. "You do not let a wound dry out. The air is good for our lungs but not for wounds," Leffell says. "Wounds heal best when they are cleaned properly with tap water, kept moist, and covered with a bandage that promotes a moist healing environment," he says.
Summer is the season for sunburns, but don't spend your time or money on aloe or vitamin E to take the burn away, says Kunin. "Instead apply plain old white, distilled vinegar to your sunburn," she says. "You may smell like a salad but the vinegar also serves as a topical non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) which reduces the inflammation, pain, and redness of a sunburn."
Mary Poppins should feel vindicated: A spoonful of sugar does more than make the medicine go down. It also can stop hiccups, says Gary Gitnick, MD, chief of the division of digestive diseases at the University of California at Los Angeles and author of Freedom from Digestive Distress. "It helps," he says. "There is a reflex arc [that] traverses the back of the throat and anything that interrupts it will stop hiccups including a teaspoon of granulated sugar," he says. The "boo! cure" works, too, he says. When you are scared, you gasp, which also interrupts the arc and stops hiccups, he says.
Can a hunk of chocolate or a handful of peanuts help curb the PMS that wreaks havoc on your mood and body each month?
"[They] can," says Ann Davis, MD, assistant professor of obstetrics/gynecology at Harvard Medical Center in Boston. "If someone says to me 'I had terrible PMS and then I drank two glasses of Coca-Cola and it went away,' I say, 'Great, keep doing it!'" she tells WebMD. But ultimately, she says, you want something that has been tested and shown to work in large groups of people.
Studies have shown that calcium and certain high-carbohydrate beverages such as PMS Escape can help, she says. The bottom line? "If a patient says it works, the only thing I want to know is if it is dangerous," she says, adding that it is always smarter to try [home] remedies that have been proven in randomized clinical trials.
Toothpaste does more than help you achieve a winning smile. When dabbed on a pimple, toothpaste can get rid of it by morning. "It is drying and basically works like a clay mask," Kunin says. "It dehydrates the pimple and absorbs the oil," she says. Toothpaste works best on a pimple that has come to a head - like a whitehead, Kunin adds. "But be careful not to use a whitening toothpaste because they tend to have high levels of hydrogen peroxide that may irritate or burn the skin," she says. "If you are going to try it, use a white paste -- not a gel -- and skip this remedy if you have sensitive skin because it will be too irritating."
Home remedies for headaches may be on your kitchen counter or at your neighborhood coffee shop, says Seymour Diamond, MD, of Chicago's Diamond Headache Clinic. "Coffee constricts the blood vessels, which reduces blood flow and eases pressure associated with certain headaches such as painful migraines and tension headaches," he says. "If you feel a headache coming on, down a few cups of coffee and it will help," he says.
In a study at the Diamond Clinic, caffeine was as good as ibuprofen at relieving headaches, he says. In fact, caffeine is often added to pain relievers. What you shouldn't do, he says, is inhale pepper, as this has no known effect on headaches. It's also important to note that regular caffeine consumption can actually cause headaches.
A penny for your ... cyst? Many of us have developed harmless ganglion cysts on the top of the wrist, the underside of the wrist, the end joint of a finger or at the base of a finger. And the best bet to get rid of it? "Squish it," says Kunin. "With a penny, a book, or really anything that will rupture it," she says. "But there is nothing magical about a penny."
Published April 10, 2003.
SOURCES: Jim Jones, MD, professor of pediatrics, National Jewish Medical and Research Center, Denver, Colo. Ann Davis, MD, assistant professor of obstetrics/gynecology, Harvard Medical Center, Boston. Seymour Diamond, MD, Diamond Headache Clinic, Chicago. Audrey Kunin, MD, Kansas City, Mo.. David J. Leffell, MD, chief of dermatologic and laser surgery, Yale-New Haven Hospital, New Haven, Conn., author of Total Skin. Christopher Bates, MD, assistant professor of medicine, National Jewish Medical Center, Denver, Colo. Gary Gitnick, MD, chief of the division of digestive diseases at the University of California at Los Angeles and author of Freedom from Digestive Distress.