Young sick woman lying in bed

Curious Cold Cures

With winter comes the inevitable cold and flu season, and in our desperate attempts to stave off sickness or recover faster, we might try all sorts of different treatments. While modern science has quite firmly stated there is no cure for the common cold, that hasn’t stopped people from claiming they know how to cure it. Advanced medical knowledge has certainly refined cold “cures” in recent decades – plenty of rest, fluids and nutrients being at the top of the list – but history is also rife with creative recommendations as well.

Let’s start with the “Potato Therapy.” A patient suffering with a cold was advised to hang a stocking filled with hot potatoes around the neck, or rub a roasted one on the head. While it is not clear how this remedy supposedly worked, one can only assume the heat from the potato offered some comfort, much the way a hot water bottle might. If that didn’t work, you could try this cure, which was developed in early 20th century America: boil skunk oil and preserve it in a jar, then apply the greasy oil to the chest. Even if it didn’t cure your cold, the smell certainly would have gotten you out of bed in a hurry.

Sore throats are another unfortunate cold symptom. In Medieval Europe, your doctor might recommend a necklace of live earthworms. When they died, you would be cured. Meanwhile, the wriggling underneath your shirt may have provided a decent distraction from the uncomfortable scratchiness in your throat. In twentieth century America, medicine had progressed to recommending a dirty sock instead of worms. By then we knew that colds (and sore throats) could be passed from person to person. So why not from person to object? It might not have helped you get better, but at least it kept other people far enough away to prevent you from passing on the germs.

For a long time fevers were thought to be cause by an excess of blood in the body, so the go-to solution was bloodletting, most effectively achieved through the application of leeches. The use of leeches in medicine dates back as far as 2,500 years, and was so popular during the nineteenth century that there was actually a leech shortage during that period.

A popular cure for coughs in sixteenth century England was frog soup. The recipe specifically called for nine frogs. Arguably, the extra protein certainly couldn’t hurt, as long as the patient didn’t know what they were eating. Not much progress was made over the next two centuries, as the recommended treatment in the 1700s was to consume the mucilaginous essence of snails. Mercifully, they added sugar to the recipe to make it more palatable. A century or so later, when coughing was apparently considered as rude as passing gas while in polite company, coughs were aggressively suppressed with a nice dose of heroin. Heroin cough syrup, sold by Bayer (who also invented Tylenol), turned out to be an effective cough suppressant. So effective in fact that it was considered a miracle cure for sufferers of tuberculosis. Unfortunately, it also had the unexpected side effect of being highly addictive, and was therefore discontinued in 1913. However, opioid-based medications, usually in the form of dextromethorphan, are still used for their cough suppressing properties today.

World War I led to a number of chemical inventions, which were quick to be put to alternative uses after the war. In 1925, Lieutenant Colonel Edward B Vedder and Captain Harold P. Sawyer of the Army Medical Corps announced that chlorine gas could cure colds with a success rate of 97.3%, and the treatment was made available to the public as the Kilacold Chlorine Bomb. Sold in a glass bulb for 29 cents at Walgreens, the user was instructed to break the end and allow the gas to permeate an enclosed room; symptoms should vanish within an hour. The product had the added bonus of also being good for treating the flu, whooping cough, croup, bronchitis and diphtheria. It’s interesting that tests showed no difference in the amount of time it took for the cold to resolve, with or without the treatment.

Cure-Alls have been popular products since they were first conceived, and have been as varied as the ailments they supposedly treated. Perhaps one of the most sought-after was the unicorn horn, a magical object that when ground up and ingested in liquid form could cure almost any malady. This was a cure for the wealthy only, since unicorn horns were rare and could only be obtained by young maidens. (Fortunately, rhinoceros and narwhal horns were comparatively easier to come by and no maidens were required: all that was needed was a bit of polish and some nice packaging.)

Cures only get worse from there. In fact, more often than not, the cure was worse than the illness itself. So next time you are sick with a cold, cheer yourself up with the knowledge that at least you aren’t wearing earthworms under your shirt.


author: Melissa Nilan