It’s 3 a.m. and suddenly your sweet dreams are interrupted by an itch — not a passing itch, but the stubborn kind. There, on your thigh, is a mysterious, ugly rash. The drugstore is closed. Your medicine chest is woefully lacking. And the itch is getting worse. What to do? Sorry, crying isn’t an option.
Don’t be a wimp. Be creative. In all likelihood, help is seconds away, in the kitchen or on the closet shelf. There are many home remedies for common ailments that can alleviate this kind of discomfort.
We’ve got remedies for typical afflictions: itchy rash, insect bites and stings, upset stomach, stiff neck, tension headaches, hiccups and hangovers. Some of the treatments they recommend are substances, others involve manipulating muscles or repositioning the body. We’ve thrown in a nonprescription product or two that, while familiar, may have unfamiliar uses.
That rash on your thigh may call for … oatmeal in a cool bath?
Absolutely. Barring the availability of an over-the-counter hydrocortisone in a strong concentration (1 percent) or an oral antihistamine like Benadryl or Tavist, oatmeal soaks are very safe and effective, says Dr. David McDaniel, a dermatologist at the Laser Center of Virginia in Virginia Beach. One popular preparation on the market is Aveeno.
“I’ve literally had patients who took oatmeal, cooked it and put it in nylon stockings, then put the stockings in the bathtub and swished them around for awhile,” says Dr. McDaniel, noting that even cool water without oatmeal is soothing.
His advice: Avoid hot water; it irritates a rash. Also skip the rubbing alcohol, which evaporates quickly and gives a sensation of coolness but actually dries the skin out, making the problem worse.
An old standby for poison oak or poison ivy, of course, is calamine lotion. But if that isn’t in your personal pharmacy, other treatments Dr. McDaniel suggests are a paste made with baking soda and water, aloe vera (full strength is best, like the liquid squeezed from that aloe vera plant on your back porch), cotton or silk clothing rather than wool, and low humidity and temperature in the house.
Insect Bites and Stings
“Another thing a lot of people don’t realize,” says Dr. McDaniel, “is that Tylenol in many cases helps decrease the discomfort of itching,” including the discomfort of insect bites and stings.
A lower-tech yet effective therapy, he says, is vinegar and water. Simply add a tablespoon of vinegar to a quart of tap water, chill the solution in the refrigerator, then pour it on a cloth and apply. Beware: The odor may be worse than the itch.
Dr. Carolyn F.A. Dean, a New York City physician, naturopath and author of “Dr. Carolyn Dean’s Complementary Natural Prescriptions for Common Ailments”, gives thumbs up to the vinegar treatment for mosquito bites and bee stings. She notes that some people also find relief in a raw, sliced onion or meat tenderizer.
“Meat tenderizer on a sting is actually very good because it has papain, which comes from papaya enzyme,” Dr. Dean says. The enzyme, she explains, “chews up” the protein complexes of the body’s painful antigen response to a bite or sting.
There are many upset-stomach culprits, including stress, but one of the biggest is the amount and type of food people eat. Standbys for quick relief from indigestion include liquid antacids such as Maalox and Mylanta, which work much faster than tablets such as Pepcid AC, says Dr. Harris Clearfield, a gastroenterologist at Hahnemann University Hospital in Philadelphia. That’s because tablets take 30 to 40 minutes to dissolve.
Absent an antacid, however, mints might do the trick. Says Dr. Clearfield: “It turns out that when you take peppermint, it relaxes the lower esophageal sphincter,” the muscle between the esophagus and stomach that allows food to go down and prevents stomach contents from coming up. “In other words, peppermint allows gas to be belched up more easily.”
Some people extol ginger and even Coca-Cola syrup, but Dr. Clearfield says their effectiveness is unproved. Indeed, the carbonation in drinks such as ginger ale may aggravate the upset, he says.
Milk, yogurt and other dairy products are temporary indigestion buffers and certainly not as strong as liquid antacids. Furthermore, the calcium in milk can stimulate, rather than counteract, the production of stomach acid, says Dr. Radhika Srinivasan, a gastroenterologist at Temple University School of Medicine in Philadelphia.
Stiffness or pain in the neck usually is caused by strain or spasm of the neck muscles, or inflammation of the neck joints, and the best remedy is prevention, says Randall Ferrell, a chiropractor in Arlington, Mass. That is, be mindful of your posture and avoid stiff neck in the first place.
For example, people who work at computers often hunch forward or down, forcing the upper part of the neck and back to hold their head up. That overtaxes the trapezius muscles running from the back of the head across the back of the shoulders. Keeping your hands behind your head for an extended period strengthens these muscles.
If you already have a stiff neck, Ferrell recommends ice and then gentle, side-to-side neck stretches.
By one estimate, more than 90 percent of headaches are tension headaches, which are characterized by pain all over the head or the feeling that a band or vise is squeezing your head. Some people report a dull, pressing, burning sensation above the eyes. As the name implies, tension headaches often result from physical or emotional stress.
Self-massage provides relief, says Shelley Marchetti, a physical therapist at St. Joseph’s Medical Center in Stockton, Calif. While sitting at a table, prop your forehead on one hand, relax, and slump over a bit, then massage the neck with the fingertips of your other hand.
Two more soothing moves, according to Marchetti, are shoulder rolls and heat to relax neck and shoulder muscles. Chin glides — holding your head straight and level, then gliding the chin forward and backward — strengthens those neck muscles, she says.
Hiccups occur when muscles in the chest contract involuntarily, ending in a brief closure of the glottis, a structure in the larynx that controls the production of vocal sounds. They have no known function. If you inadvertently swallow air, suddenly become excited or stressed, overeat, eat too quickly, or drink alcohol or carbonated beverages, you may get hiccups.
While no scientific studies have been done to determine if home remedies for hiccups really work, some time-honored techniques do seem to be effective, says Dr. Nancy Kemp, a family physician in Shingle Springs, Calif. Among treatments that somehow interrupt the muscle spasms, Kemp cites:
- Sipping ice water
- Swallowing granulated sugar
- Biting on a lemon
- Drinking from the far side of a glass
- Holding your breath
- Having someone scare you
- Breathing into a paper bag
Dr. Dean, the New York City author, is among practitioners who tout the curative power of vitamin C for hangovers. Others swear by a tablespoon or two of honey. Still others say sauerkraut juice neutralizes congeners, the toxic chemicals in alcohol that are formed during fermentation and contribute to your discomfort.
But the single best antidote may be no farther than your sink. It’s water, and the more, the better, both during the party and after. Too much alcohol dehydrates the body, and that leads to headache and other yucky symptoms.
When to Seek Professional Help
How do you know when an ailment warrants professional attention? Experts say a telltale sign is persistent symptoms. Dr. Kemp notes, for example, that hiccups are typically benign, but bouts lasting 48 hours or longer could signal an underlying illness, such as a brain tumor, stroke or heart attack.
“People have always used over-the-counter and other products, and that’s probably a good thing,” says Dr. Clearfield, the gastroenterologist at Hahnemann University Hospital. “If you’ve got a headache, take an aspirin. Don’t see a doctor. If you use herbal remedies instead of over-the-counter products, I don’t see any harm in that either.
“It’s just a question of when somebody has a persistent problem and continued use of untested remedies may lead to a delay in diagnosis. That’s our major concern.”
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