This post is part of our Home Remedy Handbook, a tour of the landscape of home remedies from the iffy to the doctor-approved. Read more here.
There’s a saying that we have a name for alternative medicine that actually works: “medicine.” And sure, you don’t want to mess around with unproven treatments when your health is at stake. But home remedies aren’t necessarily an alternative to pharmaceutical or surgical treatments. They are often part of proper medical care. It’s not unusual to hear a pediatrician say that your sniffly toddler needs rest and fluids more than they need antibiotics or cough medicine.
So let’s go forth and explore the world of home remedies. I’d like to draw out a map of the landscape, with all its attractions and pitfalls. There are places on the home remedy map we should probably all visit sometime—and others we should steer clear of.
“Supportive care” you can give your body
Our bodies do a pretty good job of taking care of ourselves. If you have a cold, for example, there’s no medication that can make the virus go away. Our immune system has to do that. So what can we do? Support our body’s ability to do that.
In medicine, they’ll talk about “supportive care” when you have a condition with no specific antidote. This means making it easy for your body to get everything it needs, and treating symptoms as needed so you don’t feel any worse than you have to. In a hospital, that may mean things like IV fluids, supplemental oxygen, and blood transfusions. At home, it can include your classic “sick day” support: fluids (like that chicken soup), rest, maybe Tylenol.
Supportive care is great, and these things are the bedrock of home remedies. Help your body to help itself, and be in touch with your provider so you know when your symptoms are serious enough to need medical help.
Self-care “remedies” you can do at home
Next, we have the things that can affect the way our body works, but that are a little more specific than rest and fluids. These are arguably part of supportive care, but I’d like to zoom in a little more on these.
For example, you can rinse your sinuses with a neti pot, or gargle with salt water to soothe irritation in your mouth. [LINK TK] You can apply ice or heat to injuries, or oatmeal to itchy skin, or alter your diet to relieve constipation [LINK TK].
These solid self-care tasks make up a lot of our best home remedies. They’re generally safe to do at home, but don’t hestitate to check with your provider about what will work best for you and how to recognize symptoms that need care that goes beyond the basics.
Over-the-counter home remedies
We can consider over-the-counter (OTC) drugs to be home remedies, in a sense: If you have Advil, anti-fungal cream, and wart remover in your medicine cabinet (just to name a few), you may be able to make fewer trips to the doctor. Your provider might even send you home from an appointment, not with a prescription, but with instructions on what to buy at the drugstore and how to use it.
It’s important to know which OTC medications are helpful, though, and for what purposes. You can’t always trust the package to tell you clearly what you need to know. Cough and cold medicines aren’t appropriate for toddlers, for example. Some OTC drugs may interact with other medications you’re taking, or could be inappropriate for some medical conditions. Some labels are misleading enough that you could buy two different medications that turn out to have the same or overlapping ingredients.
And many stores carry homeopathic “drugs” mixed in with the real ones. Homeopathy is an outdated pseudo-medical practice that got grandfathered into the FDA regulations. The result: products with no active ingredients can be sold as if they were medicines. A truly depressing number of children’s OTC medications fall into this category. In many cases, they contain no active ingredient and are simply a waste of money. But in others, they contain enough of a harmful active ingredient to allegedly cause permanent injury or death.
Unhelpful placebos and potentially toxic remedies
Next up, we have the things that make it feel like we’re doing something about a health issue, but that probably do nothing—or may even be harmful.
For example: putting toothpaste on acne. It might dry out the pimple, but it might also irritate your skin and make the redness worse. Or putting butter on a burn: You’re introducing extra crud into a wound, and for what reason? Just get that burn under some running water to cool it down and keep it clean.
These “remedies” can also be harmful in the sense that they keep us from seeking care or trying something more effective. And in some cases, they can be seriously harmful, causing complications or drug interactions. We’ll call out some of the worst of this bunch, so you know to stay away from them.
The gray areas
Herbal medicines, including teas and essential oils, [LINK TK] operate in the same real world as other medicines. They don’t earn a get-out-of-side-effects-free pass just because they’re natural.
As a rule of thumb, any medication that’s strong enough to work also has the potential to cause adverse events. And if you’re going to the trouble to use a natural medicine on yourself, you should do so with just as much care as if you were using a modern pharmaceutical. Do you really know the dosage you’re getting? Are you educated about the potential for side effects? We’ve discussed this before, in the context of DIY abortions: Pennyroyal oil seems to be about as likely to kill you as to end your pregnancy.
On the other end of the spectrum, we have things that might work, but haven’t been proven and most likely do nothing. Echinacea, for example, has shown promise in a few studies, but a deeper analysis found that it just doesn’t work for colds. That’s not to say there are zero tinctures, teas, or herbal capsules that can be appropriate for home remedies; just that the supplement aisle contains ups and downs like the rest of medicine, but with less legal oversight.
Some of these remedies can be helpful, but science doesn’t fully understand them yet; or they can be harmful, and the results haven’t been fully documented yet. They may waste your money and your time—and in many illnesses, time is crucial. You don’t want to waste weeks trying a supplement when you should have rushed to the doctor, or a year chasing down different and better supplements when what you really needed was timely professional care.
When to see a doctor
So how do we know when a home remedy is appropriate? The big, obvious answer is: You can ask a doctor. Home remedies aren’t about rejecting medical care, but about doing things we can and should do ourselves. If you’re drawn toward home remedies because they sound “natural” or because you like having the power to do something yourself, make sure to give yourself a reality check about whether you’re doing the best thing for yourself or the person you’re caring for.
And even if the reason is cost or time, you still don’t need to go it alone. Many health insurance plans have a free nurseline you can call for quick advice. Telehealth appointments with a doctor are often substantially cheaper and quicker than making an office appointment. And while Dr. Google is no replacement for a human physician, it’s worth checking medical organizations’ websites for information—like healthychildren.org, which is run by the American Association of Pediatrics, or aad.org, from the American Academy of Dermatology Association.
So feel free to get in touch with a healthcare provider before using a home remedy, even if you’re pretty sure they’ll say the remedy is fine. Home remedies can be appropriate for minor issues that don’t warrant a doctor visit yet, but you should seek medical care for anything that seems serious, gets worse, or doesn’t get better quickly. You don’t want to be facing complications a week from now and have to tell the doc you didn’t come in because Lifehacker said you can treat this on your own.