9 Crazy Old-Time Remedies That Were Used to Treat the Flu

It wasn’t so long ago we were draining patients’ blood and numbing them with whiskey.

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Roasted red peppers
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The colour red

The Spanish flu epidemic of 1918 brought with it a slew of folk-medicine remedies. After all, the flu was scary—and there was no vaccine or cure for it yet. At the very least, home remedies offered terrified Americans some semblance of control. In Chicago, families would shut all the widows and doors and boil ripe red peppers to stave off the virus. In Louisiana, one hospital superintendent recommended a quilt made of wormwood, sewn between layers of flannel and dipped in hot vinegar. But perhaps the most questionable preventative measure of all was wearing the colour red, which according to some folk-medicine records, the flu “didn’t like.” One American even penned a letter to the Public Health Service suggesting that servicemen wear a red ribbon around the chest, because “the flu is the Devil and Devil don’t work with red.”

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Background photo of sliced red onions.
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Sliced onions

Once one person in a household came down with the flu, others would soon be infected as well. To try and prevent that, some families would slice onions and place them around the house. it was thought that the onions could “absorb” the virus and prevent others from catching it. Unfortunately, we now know that’s not quite how flu works. The National Onion Association guesses this one likely originated as a medieval measure against the plague. And it didn’t work then, either.

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Glass syringe on an old silver tray
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For more than 2,000 years, bloodletting was used to treat a range of conditions, from influenza and heart disease to bad energy and demons. When it came to treating the flu, the theory was simple: By draining the body of blood, and therefore of toxins and disease, doctors could cure a patient of whatever ailed them. It didn’t work—and in fact, it killed many, including first president of the United States, George Washington—but it remained a fairly common practice still in use as recently as the 1920s.

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Outhouse in forest, Dziemiany commune of Cassubia region in Poland
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If bloodletting worked by draining the body of toxins and disease, you can see where laxatives would seem to be the next best thing, and easier to induce. “A small quantity of Pluto Water each morning upon arising will keep you regular and help ward off early winter colds and flu,” wrote one ad from 1930. Unfortunately, many laxatives of the time were made of toxic ingredients, such as the cancer-causing phenolphthalein and poisonous mercury.

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wisky on the rock on wood and wood background
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In May 1941, Time ran an article suggesting, “whiskey is one of the cheapest and best painkillers known to man.” The writer noted that despite its effectiveness, doctors had stopped prescribing it for “moral and ethical considerations.” According to one study from the time, two ounces of 95-per cent grain alcohol in a glass of ginger ale could raise the threshold of pain 45 per cent for two hours. Before you decide to try this cure yourself, remember that a shot of whiskey is guaranteed to disrupt your sleep—and sleep is something your body needs even more of when you’re sick. For safety’s sake, you’ll also never want to mix alcohol with any type of medication.

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smoking chimney of a coal power plant
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Inhaling fumes

During the 1918 flu pandemic, a group of English villagers noticed that workers who were exposed to noxious gases saw lower rates of influenza. Because of the correlation, many parents took their children to the nearest industrial plant instead of to the doctor. One sanitary officer decided to investigate the claim. He found that the general rate of influenza was 40 per cent. At a local tin factory where workers were exposed to nitric acid, it was just 11 per cent. If those workers also inhaled gunpowder, the rate was a mere five per cent, writes Dr. Jeremy Brown in his book Influenza. We know now that a correlation can never prove cause and effect, and that inhaling toxic chemical fumes is not a remedy for anything.

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Old style medicine glass bottles. Concept of science research, healthcare and laboratory tests.
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Made from the bark of the cinchona tree in South America, quinine had been used for centuries by indigenous people to treat malaria (and still is!). It was brought to Europe by the mid-17th century and continued to prove effective in reducing fevers associated with malaria. During the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918, doctors attempted to use it to stave off the fevers associated with the flu. Unfortunately, the reason quinine reduced malaria’s fever was because it actually treated malaria by attacking the parasites cause it. The treatment is useless against viruses like flu.

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Bellows antique
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Similar to bloodletting and laxatives, enemas were thought to be another way 19th-century doctors could “flush out” the flu. Sometimes the curative measures went overboard. In one 1936 case, a patient received seven enemas in three weeks, as well as two different laxatives and a handful of other home remedies, writes Dr. Jeremy Brown in his book Influenza: The Hundred Year Hunt to Cure the Deadliest Disease.

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Bowl of Italian Lemon Chicken Orzo Soup. Rustic Style
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Chicken soup

The thing about this old time remedy is that—surprise—it works! In 1978, pulmonologists asked healthy volunteers to choose to drink either hot water, cold water, or hot chicken soup, then they measured changes in congestion. The doctors found that while hot water helped clear congestion, hot soup worked even better. We’re still not sure today exactly why this works, but since the ’70s the results have been replicated again and again.

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Originally Published on Reader's Digest