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Over-the-Kitchen-Counter Remedies : Many doctors find folk medicine hard to swallow. But when you had the flu and Grandma gave you that hot cup of garlic, pepper and lemon juice, didn't you feel better?

January 16, 1994|SHARI ROAN | TIMES HEALTH WRITER

Crush some garlic and add a dash of cayenne pepper. Brew with the juice of six grapefruit. Bombard with positive thoughts--this, like, being Southern California. And, oh yes, let someone tuck you into bed with tender, loving care.

This concoction was among the nearly 200 responses sent in by readers who shared their best cures for wintertime colds and flu.

Chicken is big, booze is bigger. And lots of readers have faith in salt, onions, garlic, and sizzling teas and soups.

There were readers who passed on home remedies that had been in their families for generations--like Magda Simon's chicken soup, which originated in Hungary at the turn of the century.

"The chicken has nothing to do with it," says Simon of Los Angeles. "It's the onion, garlic, parsley roots, parsnips and carrots."

And, the call for home remedies clearly brought back memories of a time before TheraFlu.

Devra Hill, a Beverly Hills writer, was raised on her Italian grandmother's boiled grapefruit juice and her English grandmother's hot toddy consisting of lemon juice, brandy and hot water.

Ben Fellstad of Mission Viejo recalls that while growing up during the Great Depression in the backwoods of Norway, "Home remedies were all we had.

"It was a common remedy (to put) two drops of turpentine or naphtha on a sugar cube, chew fast and swallow. After a few minutes in the stomach, this vile concoction started a revolution that could only be relieved by a tremendous burp that was more like an explosion. And you felt like your face disappeared through your ears."

Other readers recalled home remedies that saved them as a child but dare not be repeated in the days of antibiotics.

It was apparently common to blow sulfur through a straw into a child's sore throat; swab the neck with kerosene, also to relieve raw throats; blow smoke in an aching ear, and hang little bags of smelly "asafetida" or fried onion around the neck to ward off germs. (Actually, the bag probably warded off other children, which warded off germs.)

Lael Littke of Pasadena says her "flesh cringes" when she thinks of her mother's remedy for chest colds: flannel plaster bags smeared with a concoction of dry mustard, water and cayenne pepper.

"She smeared this mess inside the two bags at bedtime, then fitted them onto the unfortunate child," Littke recalls. "After a couple tablespoons of cod liver oil . . . the child was deposited to bed, covered with heavy quilts, and left to fry gently all night.

"In the morning, our small chests were fiery red and close to blisters from the heat generated by the concoction, but we were free from congestion. Or, at least we claimed we were, to avoid a second night's cooking."

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Home cures clearly have a place in the modern world. Some ingredients do have the power to relieve cold and flu symptoms, according to science. Others may simply work because people believe they work, although there is no evidence that any home remedy can cure a cold.

But perhaps feeling good is just as important as getting over a cold quickly. Maybe that is why so many readers say they turn to their liquor cabinets instead of their medicine cabinets when the sneezes strike.

Liquor, like other home remedies, is contrary to what science dictates is best to treat colds and flu. Alcohol can raise your body temperature--not a good idea if you're already stoking the thermometer.

Other home remedies make some sense for reasons strongly rooted in folklore and homeopathy, if not in medical science.

Garlic, for instance, is considered a potent cure in some areas of the world. It's said to reduce throat soreness and chest congestion. Garlic contains selenium, known to have a calming effect, says pharmacology professor Fred Weissman of USC. (He was solicited for this story as the scientific voice of reason.)

"There is some mystique in terms of how garlic works," he says. "But selenium does seem to suppress excitability, so there may be some effect in making you feel better."

Equally bad for your breath but good for your health are onions, among the oldest natural remedies--dating to the Greeks and Romans. Onions, long thought to prevent infection, are now considered to be effective as an expectorant, especially when consumed in a syrupy form. Onions are also rich in Vitamin C (which studies show may have a mild effect in reducing the duration of a cold).

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Many home remedies are based on liquids, which counter dehydration caused by vomiting or high fever, loosen congestion and relieve sore throat and coughing.

Hot liquids do the same things while also raising the temperature of the throat, which, legend has it, stops the reproduction of viruses. Viruses often take hold in the throat before spreading throughout the body. So some people believe that gargling with hot salt water at the first sign of soreness may kill the virus before it has a chance to spread.

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