Folk remedy

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Against allopathy
Alternative medicine
Clinically unproven

Gather 'round the campfire
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Urban legends

A folk remedy is any purported health remedy which comes from a pre-scientific source, usually through oral tradition. They remain popular among people who continue to use them because it is popular in the culture they are from or because "this is what grandma did", but many such practices have also remained in use through promotion as patent medicines or alternative medicine fads.

Folk remedies are distinguished from much alternative medicine and mainstream, scientifically-proven medicine alike by predating the era of modern medicine in origin. They range from sometimes effective to not at all effective. Some folk remedies may be potentially provable, others clearly not. The fact that your great-grandparents swore by such remedies doesn't give them some mystical superiority to modern medicine. The opposite is quite often the case, as these remedies came about by people making do with what was on hand in the era before medicines proven by the scientific method became readily available. Common ingredients in folk remedies in the United States include things like turpentine, sassafras tea, and whiskey. Some folk remedies also exist that are more in the realm of magic than medicine at all.

"Traditional medicine" systems also of pre-scientific origin, such as traditional Chinese medicine (including acupuncture), indigenous tribal medicine (including shamanic practices), and homeopathy, are a related practice with the main distinction being that folk remedies are a mish-mash of practices not part of any system per se.

It could be said that folk remedies, far from being a thing of the past, are still very much part of modern culture because we still have an oral tradition and equivalent means of passing along purported folk remedies, including over the internet. Thus somebody who tries colonics or some exotic fad diet might gush[1] with enthusiasm to their friends, who will try them solely on the basis of word of mouth without doing further research to determine their actual effectiveness. Modern folk remedies include such things as tea tree oil, colloidal silver, shiitake mushrooms, DMSO, and ear candling.


  • Warts — numerous folk remedies exist for warts. Because warts often disappear on their own, somebody might notice that a wart went away after rubbing a penny on it or putting turpentine on it, and pass this "remedy" down through oral tradition. An important concept to remember here is correlation does not equal causation.
  • Head lice — mayonnaise and a plastic bag can be fatal.[2]
  • Faith healing
  • Whiskey — as an all-purpose pain reliever and antiseptic, purported snake bite remedy, and numerous other uses.[3] This probably is effective as a topical antiseptic, though rubbing alcohol is probably better: it's stronger (140 to 182 proof, versus 80 proof or so), and cheaper to boot.
  • Snake oil, and exotic animal parts such as ground-up horns, are old folk remedies popular in China. Their continued use has created a problem with poaching and international smuggling of animal parts of endangered species.
  • Prune juice — as a natural laxative.
  • Burns — some folk remedies claimed to use quasi-magical practices to "draw out the fire" from the burn, a mystical pre-scientific notion. Others involved putting such things as lard, grease, turpentine, or butter on the burn. As any paramedic today will tell you, putting these on a burn does more harm than good.
  • Chewing tobacco — to cure athlete's foot and worms.
  • Chicken soup — a well-known remedy for congestion, especially that caused by the common cold. Harmless, delicious, and may be effective according to recent studies.[4]
  • Tree bark — a traditional remedy for fever from ancient Greece to the Pueblo tribes. Some trees actually work, like the willow. In fact, that's how salicylic acid and derivatives like aspirin were discovered in the 19th century. Others don't work on fever, but have other effects, like sassafras bark, which is a mild analgesic (and a great flavoring for other horrid-tasting herbal medicines), which led to useful scientific discoveries. Others do nothing at all. This demonstrates that there often is something to folk remedies, but if so, they tend to become scientific remedies, and then get improved. An aspirin tablet works better than a hunk of willow bark.
  • Dock leaves (Rumex obtusifolius) — Tend to be the go to when you get stung by a nettle, and given they tend to grow fairly close by, it's easy to find.

Bottom line[edit]

If you have a serious medical condition or a medical emergency such as poisonous snake bite, don't rely on great-grandpa's old cure for snake bite; instead, see a physician. There is a good reason life expectancy back then was less than half of what it is today. Avoid folk remedies that are known to be bad (e.g., tobacco, sassafras, turpentine, grease on burns, snake oil and who knows what else because it wasn't tested for safety or effectiveness in the olden days).

See also[edit]


  1. In the case of colonic irrigation, one should always stand well back when the patient is gushing
  2. Toddler dies after mayonnaise, plastic bag lice treatment
  3. Drinking enough whiskey will probably make you feel better, but on the other hand you'll feel a lot worse the next morning.
  4. The Science of Chicken Soup