7 Old-Fashioned Remedies for the Common Cold
by Sarah Dobbs
With no cure for the common cold, sniffling, wheezing, aching patients often rely on home remedies to soothe their symptoms. And according to the Mayo Clinic, increased rest, plenty of fluids, and a humidifier really can get you back on your feet quicker. But alcohol, opium, and leeches? No, thank you! Here are seven old-timey cold remedies that are better left in the past.
1. A RUM, LINSEED, RAISIN, AND LIQUORICE DECOCTION
Containing 2000 recipes (many of which historians consider questionable), housekeeping tips, and home remedies, The Book of Household Management by journalist Isabella Mary Beeton was an immediate success when it was published in 1861. A century and a half later, her advice raises a few eyebrows. Take, for instance, the elixir she promises will cure your cold in under a week:
Put a large teacupful of linseed, with 1/4 lb. of sun raisins and 2 oz. of stick liquorice, into 2 quarts of soft water, and let it simmer over a slow fire till reduced to one quart; add to it 1/4 lb. of pounded sugar-candy, a tablespoonful of old rum, and a tablespoonful of the best white-wine vinegar, or lemon-juice. The rum and vinegar should be added as the decoction is taken; for, if they are put in at first, the whole soon becomes flat and less efficacious. The dose is half a pint, made warm, on going to bed; and a little may be taken whenever the cough is troublesome. The worst cold is generally cured by this remedy in two or three days; and, if taken in time, is considered infallible.
2. A FLANNEL CHEST COMPRESS
Beeton suggested anyone suffering from a chesty cough skip the decoction and opt for a compress instead:
A flannel dipped in boiling water, and sprinkled with turpentine, laid on the chest as quickly as possible, will relieve the most severe cold or hoarseness.
It sounds a bit odd, but since modern chest rubs still sometimes contain turpentine, alongside analgesics like camphor oil and menthol, it isn’t entirely without merit.
3. OPIUM TINCTURE
John Wesley is better known for his religious works—he’s one of the founders of Methodism—but he also wrote a book of medicine, entitled Primitive Physic, Or, An Easy and Natural Way of Curing Most Diseases (1761). In it, he offers a recipe for cold medicine that he calls “oily emulsion.” Its ingredients: six ounces of salt water, two drams of volatile aromatic spirit, an ounce of Florence oil, and half an ounce of sugar syrup.
He notes, however, that the mixture will work better if the volatile spirit is replaced with “the paregoric elixir of the Edinburgh dispensatory.” And it probably would, because that elixir is essentially a mixture of camphor and opium.
4. JUNIPER SMOKE
In his 1597 guide to plants and their uses, botanist John Gerard recommended burning the gum of the juniper tree to drive away snottiness. "The fume and smoke of the gum doth stay flegmatic humours that distill out of the head, and stoppeth the rheume," he wrote.
Gerard was likely inspired by ancient Chinese remedies, which involved burning dried herbs. And he wasn’t entirely barking up the wrong tree, since juniper oil is still used in some herbal medicines designed to be inhaled, but smoking anything when you have a sore throat and congested lungs seems like a recipe for disaster.
In Ancient Greece, health was thought to be governed by four humors: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. Too much of one or the other affected your personality and also your health. As late as the 19th century, European doctors believed the blood humor was associated with heat, so if you were running a temperature, it meant you had too much blood. Their grisly solution? Leeches. In his 1809 Treaty on Medical Leeches, French physician Louis Vitet wrote, "The benefits of the leech for man are so great that all doctors should be aware of them."
Leeches are still sometimes used in medicine, generally for healing skin grafts or other kinds of reconstructive surgery, because they secrete an anti-coagulant—but they won’t do much for a case of the sniffles.
6. WHITE BRYONY
Natural or herbal medicines are generally regarded as harmless, even if they don’t actually cure the illness they’re being taken for. This one, though, is pretty risky. In his 1897 book on herbal cures, William Thomas Fernie recommends taking a tincture of white bryony for “relieving coughs and colds of a feverish bronchial sort, caught by exposure to the east wind.” White bryony, however, is poisonous. While it likely won't kill you, its strong purgative effects could cause a lot of discomfort.
If all else fails, it seems doctors historically suggested drowning your misery in alcohol. In William Buchan’s 1772 book Domestic Medicine, he recommends drinking until you’re seeing double. "Go to bed, hang your hat on the foot of the bed and continue to drink until you can see two hats," he famously wrote. A night of binge-drinking certainly won't bring your cold to an end, but in the Victorian era it might have seemed like the only way to sleep through the night.