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July 10, 2014, 10:40 pm

Stock up on Vicks, garlic, cold cures

Going out to work, school, church, dinner or a social event can occasionally be a real challenge. At times, some of us cannot go out while others will not, because of a condition that has put many of us in our beds or has frightened us into believing that going out and coming into contact with ailing people will make us stay home in our beds.

If you are clueless about the subject I am referencing, then think about those folk around you who are coughing and sneezing like crazy. Yes, it is that time of the year. Because I hear so many colleagues asking for suggestions to fight off colds, I would like to reflect on those old remedies from our neighborhood drugstores and those concoctions our parents and grandparents gave us to fight colds, back in the day.

I count my lucky stars that so far this year, I have not had a cold. Some friends and colleagues have not been so fortunate. I have been spared even though I have not had a flu shot. I know a serious cold could still come down on me before the flu season comes to an end. If it does, there is no doubt that I will resort to the first thing that enters my mind; a product that my parents turned to whenever one of my siblings or I had a cold. Our chests were rubbed down with Vicks VapoRub. Do you recall how your parents wrapped your chest with an old towel and then had you slip on an old tee shirt? I can still see my mother turn out the lights and close the bedroom door with the expectation that things would be better in the morning. No one could stay in the room with you, as everything ended up smelling of Vicks. Nothing could get rid of that smell! Your treatment might have required placing Vicks in your nostrils. Memories of my parents’ rubdowns more than 50 years ago still cause me to put a dab of Vicks on my finger and gently rub a little in my nostrils today. Just as Vicks VapoRub cleared my head back in the day, it clears my head today. It is funny how little things like this keep my parents close by even though they are no longer with me.

A colleague told me her mother swore that coughing could be stopped by applying Vicks VapoRub to the bottoms of their feet and covering them with socks at night. There was another use of this product that some of you may remember. Do you recall your mother placing her index finger containing a large scoop of Vicks on the back of your tongue? The taste was nasty and it was probably unsafe to consume it, but it seemed to work. You can still find Vicks VapoRub in drug stores. It no longer comes in the metal tubs in which it was packaged, back in the day

If Vicks was not your remedy in the past, tI suspect the next reliable treatment was chicken noodle soup. The idea that chicken noodle soup, often dubbed the “Jewish penicillin,” is effective in addressing colds dates back to ancient times. Some researchers believe that heat is the key factor, as any soup will work. The heat from the soup promotes airway secretions and has a calming effect on inflamed throats. In spite of the fact that it appears to work for many, scientists have yet to fully determine the reasons. However, as it relates to chicken soup, it is believed that the combination of fats, spices and water work best when it comes to breaking up mucus. I bet that even today, many who get colds still turn to chicken noodle soup as a remedy.

Growing up in God-fearing homes, some readers of this column were given a steaming hot cup of water, with whiskey and lemon. Your parents may have referred to this mixture as a “hot toddy.” My father was not a drinker. In fact, he forbade any alcoholic beverages in our home. That is, except for a bottle of rye whiskey, one of his back-in-the-day home remedies for a cold. He did not give this to the kids, but whenever a cold was on the horizon, a teaspoon of rye whiskey worked just fine for him.

Back then, garlic and onions were also held to be good home remedies for colds. While I have never tried this, I understand it helped to reduce mucous in the nasal cavities. Garlic is also said to aid in cleansing the blood. True or not, it has been said that if you cut several onions in half and place them around your home, you will not get colds.

Some believe a sure-fire remedy for a sore throat is to gargle with a strong solution of table salt and warm water. Have you tried Rooibos teas? What about a drink consisting of lime, salt and honey? I know of people who drink milk and a raw egg for a cough. Did your parents place quinine powder in the palm of your hand for you to lick in order to fight a cold? If you think these approaches to fighting a cold are unusual, consider what I was told by someone who grew up in the backwoods of Delaware. He said his father gave him a concoction containing kerosene to drink for his cold. He explained it was mixed with Karo Syrup and his father swore that it was the ultimate solution for a cold. There must be some truth to his story, as I found a second person whose parents gave him a teaspoon of sugar with several drops of kerosene to treat his cold.

Maybe your remedy of choice is the mustard plaster. Thist is a paste the color of mustard that a parent would rub into a cloth, and then fold the cloth so the paste did not come into contact with the skin. Finally, the cloth is placed over one’s chest or back. The mustard plaster smelled and it could possibly burn the skin, but for many it worked. There are those who still use this remedy today. Did you ever take a cold medicine called “666”? I can’t imagine anyone swallowing this bitter drink. I know some of you recall being told that you have to “sweat out” your cold. So, many of us would drink a cup of hot tea with ginger or lemon. Next, we would sit in a hot bath until we perspired and could no longer stand the heat. We would then climb under the bedcovers, and sleep until morning. Often, the next morning you would find the bed, soaking wet from your perspiration. However, the cold was gone.

If you grew up back in the day, that dark brown bottle with the white label should still be outstanding in your mind. It was Father John’s Medicine. It was promised to relieve coughs due to minor throat and bronchial irritation from colds or inhaled irritants. While originally made in 1855, a handful of people today that still rely on Father John’s to get them through the winter. My parents were not Father John’s users; my father was a big believer in castor oil. If I showed signs of illness, in particular, signs of having a cold, I received a spoonful of castor oil. My father even gave me castor oil if I cut my finger. The same was true for spirit of niter. I would start crying before my father poured it into the spoon. Both were the nastiest medicines I had ever tasted. Castor oil was claimed by some to be the most indecent kind of medicine that man could make; a medicine that must have been made by a demon that was guaranteed to kill. It appeared that if the medicine was nasty, then it must have been good for you.

The cold and flu season will be with us for a number of weeks. There is little doubt that many of you will be hit with at least one miserable cold. So I encourage you to engage in some advance planning and reach back just a little. Why not make up a checklist of remedies for a cold; remedies that are a lot less costly; a checklist that contains Vicks VapoRub, nasal sprays, garlic, kerosene, mustard plaster, Father John’s, castor oil and all of the other remedies that had much or even more success, back in the day.


Alonzo Kittrels can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or The Philadelphia Tribune, Back In The Day, 520 S. 16th St., Philadelphia, PA 19146.