For minor aches and pains, a trip to the doctor or pharmacy may not be necessary. Check which home remedies 14 health professionals and alternative medicine experts use for less serious conditions. Always check with your doctor about unexplained symptoms.
What does a dermatologist do for her sunburn? How does a physical therapist ease aching muscles after a “casual” volleyball match? What does the pediatrician’s kid get for a hacking cough in the middle of the night?
Doctors don’t always have a pharmacy at their fingertips — sometimes they have to improvise just like the rest of us. The difference? They have all that training backing up their choices. So Prevention asked 14 health professionals what home remedies they use for themselves and their families. Now you can relieve, recover and restore just like the experts.
1. Skin irritations, blemishes and boo-boos
Itchy rashes can be caused by plant oils, perfumes or prickly heat, to name just a few triggers, said Andy Spooner, MD, director of general pediatrics at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center. “My number one rule: Take an over-the-counter antihistamine.” He buys Children’s Benadryl Allergy Fastmelts; kids like the way they dissolve on the tongue (no swallowing required), and they’re effective in adults, too. Check the label for dosage.
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To soothe skin instantly, spritz yourself with European mineral water — San Pellegrino, for example — said Christopher Dannaker, MD, an assistant professor of dermatology at the University of California, San Francisco. Studies show that mineral-rich spring water relieves pain from burns and rashes; it’s also used to treat itching and redness following laser skin resurfacing. “Mist it onto irritated skin and its trace minerals will work as anti-inflammatories,” he said.
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For persistent acne, gently scrub your face with coarse salt (an antiseptic) and a few drops of neem oil (an antifungal oil available at health food stores), said Hema Sundaram, MD, author of “Face Value: The Truth about Beauty — and a Guilt-Free Guide to Finding It.” Rinse, then apply a mask of plain yogurt for 15 to 30 minutes. “The lactic acid in yogurt is a natural exfoliant that gives skin a glow, clears acne and fades discolorations and fine lines,” she explained.
When attacked by mosquitoes, Dannaker reduces swelling and itching with aspirin paste. “Crush a low-dose aspirin, add an ounce of water to dissolve, then apply,” he said. It’s an anti-inflammatory and should reduce the redness from bites or stings, pimples and ingrown hairs because it contains salicylic acid, the active ingredient in acne medicines.
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“Soothe eczema and psoriasis flare-ups by applying olive oil directly to the irritated area,” said Dannaker. “Rub in one teaspoon per square inch; it creates a seal so skin won’t dry out.” Olive oil is the basis of many moisturizers — but used alone, it lacks chemical irritants you may find in store-bought creams. For serious cases, cover oil-slathered skin with plastic wrap overnight. These rashes rarely turn into broken skin, but if they do, skip the home treatment and see a doctor right away.
Minor burns — whether you fell asleep in the sun or grabbed the wrong end of a curling iron — can be treated with a cold compress of black or green tea, said Marie Savard, MD, a lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. “Soak a dish towel in cold tea. The phytonutrients will reduce inflamed blood vessels.”
To minimize scarring as a wound heals, keep the skin soft. “Contrary to popular belief, scabbing is not ideal; instead, keep it moist with petroleum jelly and a bandage for 3 to 5 days,” said Dannaker. Overnight, put cellophane tape over the jelly; tape keeps water trapped in the skin better than breathable bandages, encouraging healthy collagen growth.”My tummy feels awful.”
2. Nausea, diarrhea and upset stomach
Feeling queasy? “Take a look at the ingredients in over-the-counter nausea remedies: Many are mostly sugar,” said pediatrician Spooner. “Save yourself a few bucks and use the fruit syrup from a can of peaches instead. For motion sickness, morning sickness, or stomach bugs, the last thing you need is a huge meal. But that syrup, or some flat soda, can take the edge off.”
When diarrhea strikes his family, Gannady Raskin, MD, ND, dean of the School of Naturopathic Medicine at Bastyr University, cures it with herbal concoctions. “Tea made from pomegranate skin will help an upset stomach,” he said. Set aside the leftovers of your next purchase; you can store dried skin for up to six months.
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Then steep a tablespoon’s worth in a cup of boiling water for three to four minutes. Oak bark (available at health food stores) works, too: Boil for three minutes, let sit for half an hour, and then strain. Both recipes are rich in tannins, which help the body produce mucus to line the stomach and lessen irritation. Drink two tablespoons, four to six times a day.
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If you suspect food poisoning, couple black tea with a few pieces of burned toast, said Georgianna Donadio, PhD, director of the National Institute of Whole Health, a holistic certification program for medical professionals. “The tannic acid in tea and the charcoal in the toast will neutralize the toxins and help you get much better very quickly.”
For a hangover, Donadio recommended a cup of tomato juice with a splash of Tabasco sauce. “It stimulates the liver and is loaded with antioxidants that your body needs replenished,” she said.
3. Cold, flu, congestion and allergies
In the early stages of cold or flu, try this recipe from Brian Berman, MD, director of the Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine: Place a whole unpeeled grapefruit, sectioned into four pieces, in a pot and cover with water; heat to just under a boil. Stir and add a tablespoon of honey, and drink the whole mixture like tea.
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“The simmering releases immune boosters from the grapefruit into the water — vitamin C and flavonoids hidden between the rind and the fruit,” he said. “The concoction packs more punch than store-bought grapefruit juice, plus the warmth eases a sore throat.”
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To beef up your body’s healing response, he swears by liquid olive leaf extract, available at health food stores. Studies suggest that its antiviral qualities can help treat cold and flu bugs. “You end up getting rid of mucus sooner, and it helps your immune system fight back as well.”
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Congestion and bronchitis call for an oldie but a goodie, said Woodson Merrell, MD, an assistant clinical professor of medicine at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons: medicated vapor rub. Applied to the chest, it helps stuffed-up sufferers breathe easier, but Merrell prefers a cleaner approach: Boil a pot of water, let it cool for about 1 minute, and then mix in a teaspoon of vapor rub. Lean over it with your head about a foot from the steam. Use a towel over your head to make a tent, and inhale for five minutes.
Your nasal congestion may also respond to saltier measures: Merrell rinses his sinuses with a store-bought nasal saline solution (or, in a pinch, dissolve a teaspoon of salt in a cup of water) to wash out pollen and thin mucus. Spooner said his two children willingly “hose their nose” when they’re sick by squirting the solution up each nostril with a bulb syringe.
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“Buy saline by the case, and start your kids early. It provides instant relief of congestion without side effects,” he adds. “It won’t shorten your cold, but being able to breathe through your nose makes the wait more pleasant.”
For relief from seasonal allergy symptoms — such as itchy eyes, runny nose, and sneezing — Merrell also recommends herbal supplements. Last year, Swiss researchers showed that one tablet of butterbur three times a day worked just as well as popular antihistamines without causing drowsiness. Herbs can sometimes interfere with other drugs or cause problems in pregnancy, though, so talk to your doctor before taking them.
4. Sore throat, oral health and dental dilemmas
You can soothe a toothache with cloves; the old-fashioned remedy really works, said Jack Dillenberg, DDS, dean of the Arizona School of Dentistry & Oral Health. But today, not everyone has the spice handy, so he recommends eugenol — clove extract — available at your pharmacy. Soak a cotton ball and place it directly on the tooth for several minutes, and the pain should subside until you can get to a dentist.
Recurring fever blisters (you might know them as cold sores) can’t be completely cured — but they can be treated, and outbreaks prevented, with the amino acid L-lysine, found in ointments or tablets in health food stores, said Paul Horowitz, MD, medical director of the Legacy Pediatric Clinics at Emanuel Children’s Hospital in Portland, OR.
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If you’re among the 60 percent to 90 percent of Americans who carry the herpes virus that causes blisters, start taking 1,000 mg three times a day with meals as soon as you feel an outbreak coming on. (The supplement may not be safe for those with high cholesterol, heart disease, or high triglycerides.) Oral ulcers and sores (the nonviral kind) are frequent complaints of Horowitz’s cancer patients — they’re a common side effect of chemotherapy. “For them, I prescribe what we call a ‘magic mouthwash,'” he said: “A rinse-and-spit mixture of equal parts Maalox, Benadryl, and Xylocaine.” While Xylocaine requires a prescription, you can make a similar solution with the other two over-the-counter components. But don’t trust young children to spit it out, he cautions — instead, dab just a small amount onto the sore with an eyedropper.
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For mouth pain — especially in kids, who might be picky about medicine — try “mint anything,” Spooner said. “Mint gum, candies, tea, whatever. The herb has a numbing effect on whatever it touches, and can make sore throats, mouth burns, or canker sores feel better.”
5. Backaches, sore muscles and joints
After a tough workout, Declan Connolly, PhD, a professor of exercise science at the University of Vermont, drinks a bottle of tart cherry juice; he studied its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory abilities and concluded that it helps sore muscles recover. “Though you may feel fine initially after a workout, your tissues suffer tiny tears and swelling,” he said. “Tart cherries contain higher amounts of anthocyanins — antioxidants that help repair damage — than sweet cherries and most other fruits or vegetables.”
Connolly tested the brand Cherrypharm, but you can find other brands of 100 percent tart cherry juice or juice concentrate in natural food supermarkets or health food stores.
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If muscle soreness has already hit, at least make sure your ice is easy to use. Darran W. Marlow, DC, director of the chiropractic division at the Texas Back Institute, keeps a Dixie cup filled with water in the freezer, and when next-day muscle or joint pain strikes, he peels off the top half-inch of paper for quick, easy application. Run the ice directly along the affected joint for 5 minutes at a time; any longer could cause frostbite.
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If you’ve really injured yourself (with shin splints, a pulled muscle, or a sprain, for example), you need downtime to heal; otherwise it’s important to keep moving. “Activating a sore muscle is better than resting it,” said Stephen P. Sayers, PhD, an assistant professor of physical therapy at the University of Missouri–Columbia. “Getting the blood flowing to those muscles will reduce inflammation and help them heal. Choose a less strenuous exercise to do for a few days; then gradually work your way back up to a harder routine.
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“Back pain is the number one complaint of Marlow’s patients; he advises them to first think about their driving posture. “Be sure you sit at a 90 degree angle, close to the wheel so you don’t have to stretch,” he said. “Extending your leg puts your back in a compromised position, but many people don’t even realize they’re doing it.” And for knotted back muscles? Marlow lies on the floor on top of a tennis ball. “Roll around on it until you feel it under a tight spot — then relax your body into that area.
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“If you normally wear unsupportive footwear, adding cushiony inserts or switching to running sneakers will cut down on jarring to your back. When Lehigh University researchers gave back-pain sufferers lightweight, flexible shoes with simple cushions, 80 percent reported significant relief within a year.
6. Head and neck pain
For headaches, Berman treats his family to acupressure foot rubs. “You’ll get just as much relief from someone rubbing your feet as your head,” he said. Acupressurists use points all over the body to treat headaches, but the best results may come from massaging a third of the way down the sole of the foot, where the toes begin.
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Raskin also treats the feet during headache episodes, but does so with a bath made from hot water and a few teaspoons of mustard powder (used in cooking; available at grocery stores). “Footbaths are relaxing and can ease pain in general,” he said, “but the hot water will also cause your body to redistribute blood from one concentrated area — your throbbing head — and get it flowing all over.” At the same time, mustard powder’s essential oils stimulate the skin, diverting your attention from the pain.
To relieve muscle tension in your head and neck, try lying down with an ice pack or bag of frozen peas, rolled in a towel, under your neck for 15 minutes, suggests Marlow.”I’m counting sheep, but running out.”
7. Sleep, stress and mental health issues
Need Zzzs? If tomorrow’s to-do list keeps you up tonight, take some advice from Suzanne Segerstrom, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Kentucky. “I discovered my secret remedy for insomnia as a stressed-out grad student: Listening to an audiobook until I fell asleep,” she said. Research confirms the effectiveness of her method; the brain works like a tape player — with one main auditory loop that processes words. “If you fill that loop with an interesting book, there’s no room for your own worrisome internal narrative. Some people find sounds like running water helpful, but for those who have continuous thoughts running through their heads, it might be necessary to replace that verbal speak with other verbal speak.”
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Valerian root, a natural sedative available as a tincture in health food stores, can calm your nervous system at night, said Raskin. (Though study results on valerian are mixed, several trials suggest it improves shut-eye for troubled sleepers.) Add 25 to 30 drops to 1-1/2 ounces of warm water, 30 minutes before bed, and drink up. “Mix in some honey and follow it with half a glass of water to cut the strong taste,” he advises. You can also find valerian in commercial teas, such as Celestial Seasonings Sleepytime Extra Wellness blend.
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Combating stress during the day requires a nondrowsy cure. When tension builds up, take a short break and focus on an activity that requires repetitive motion — such as knitting or swimming laps. “Any hobby can help keep things in perspective,” Berman said, “but ones that involve repetition and rhythm are especially effective at distracting you from work.”If you’re suffering from low energy, make sure you’re getting enough water. “Half of the people who come to me complaining of fatigue are actually dehydrated,” said Merrell; aim for six to eight glasses a day.
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If you’re already well hydrated, try Siberian ginseng; in animal and human studies, it’s been found to increase stamina. Take four 500 mg tablets of dried bark a half hour before a workout or a big day at work — but for a reliable boost, use it for just 3 months at a time. The herb rhodiola may also increase alertness by encouraging production of brain chemicals that stimulate your central nervous system; one Russian study found that people taking rhodiola reported less mental fatigue along with higher levels of physical fitness and better coordination. Follow dosage instructions on the label.