Butter, alcohol or skunk oil, sound science often behind traditional folk remedies

When Ruth Humble, 86, of Grand Forks, was a young girl, bug spray wasn't available at the store. It didn't even exist. When she would get mosquito bites or bee stings, her mom would put mud on the bites to soothe them. "It worked, or we thought i...




When Ruth Humble, 86, of Grand Forks, was a young girl, bug spray wasn’t available at the store. It didn’t even exist. When she would get mosquito bites or bee stings, her mom would put mud on the bites to soothe them.

“It worked, or we thought it did anyway,” Ruth said. “I lived on the farm and that was the only remedy we had.”


During Ruth’s teens and early 20s, breakthroughs in the development of various products - from bug spray to sunscreen - made dealing with summer ailments much easier. But before that, people had to come up with homemade solutions.

 “The thing you have to remember is that (people living in) the 18th and 19th centuries had a much lower regard for what they expected from professional medicine, so they would go back to home remedies,” said Stephen Greenberg, a medical historian with the National Library of Medicine.

Greenberg said some home remedies actually worked and are still available today.

“Basically what you’ve got are folk remedies that either did or didn’t work,” Greenberg said. “The great topical remedy for sunburn and mosquito bites was witch hazel, which you can still get at your trusty Rite Aid” drug store.

In addition to witch hazel, Greenberg and local readers shared their experiences with other home remedies involving everything from whiskey and lemon to the cooked-down fat of a skunk.

Beating bug bites

The war against mosquitoes didn’t get serious until World War II.

“World War II was a huge watershed because you had these soldiers who were put in tropical environments,” Greenberg said.


But the average soldier was more concerned with bullets than bug bites. The main issue with bug bites wasn’t the pain or irritation, but rather the threat of insect-borne diseases such as malaria, dengue fever and yellow fever, which caused scientists to work on vaccines to protect soldiers from such diseases.

The Army also developed DEET, which is the oil that repels mosquitoes, ticks and flies and is that basis of most common insect repellents.

But prior to conventional bug spray, Greenberg said the way to eliminate the chance of bug bites was to eliminate mosquitoes.

“If you look at what was done in the Panama Canal from 1900-1910, they weren’t trying to make people resistant to the bug bites,” he said. “They were trying to drain the swamps and get rid of the mosquitoes that way and then use mosquito netting.”

Again, the cures available for curing bug bites involved natural analgesics like witch hazel or rubbing alcohol on the bites to cool them.

Dr. drink

One of the main mosquito-borne diseases causing concern during World War II was malaria, and the first effective cure to be discovered is now a staple at your local bar.

Quinine, found in the bark of the cinchona tree in South America, was used to cure malaria, Greenberg said. The bark was soaked in water, creating a strong-tasting tonic that explorers brought back to Europe in the 17th century.


Because the bark-water wasn’t exactly delicious, Europeans would mix the quinine water with gin to make it more palatable, which birthed the gin and tonic.

However, today’s tonic water isn’t nearly as strong as the original quinine solution, so leave gin and tonics at the bar.

In addition to tinctures, alcohol can be used to cure a sore throat or ease symptoms of a cold (if you are of age, of course).

Lon LaGrave, a former Grand Forks resident now living in Baumholder, Germany, said slowly sipping and swirling a few milliliters of a good whiskey around your mouth, tongue and throat before swallowing will ease pain.

The alcohol actually does soothe the throat, and it also causes blood vessels to dilate, which helps reduce mucus and allows white blood cells to fight diseases like the common cold, which can cause a sore throat. However, alcohol in excess can cause membranes to inflame, which will increase discomfort instead of reducing it.

Alcohol is also effective for soothing symptoms when you aren’t drinking it.

Most home remedies involving plants with medicinal properties (such as witch hazel or aloe vera) were made effective by being soaked in alcohol to make a tincture, which would feel soothing due to the cool feel of alcohol.

Sun solutions


The first sunscreens entered the market in the 1940s and were estimated to have an SPF of 2.

Prior to this, blocking the sun was a bit trickier. Greenberg said the pasty zinc oxide ointments commonly seen on the noses of lifeguards were the first effective form of sun block.

But the danger of the sun and sunburn, like bug bites, were treated differently before sunscreen, Greenberg said. People would cover up, or develop a deep tan (and perhaps untreated skin cancer) after years of exposure.

To treat burns, Greenberg said the key was moisturizing the skin, since sunburn dehydrates the affected area.

Humble said her family used Vaseline when she was a child.

“We didn’t have too many lotions in my day,” she said.

M.D. Groven, 70, of Grand Forks, said he would put butter on his burns when he was a kid.

Greenberg said this was indeed a common remedy before more modern products were available.


“Before there were moisturizers, there was butter,” he said.

Greenberg added that before the invention of sunscreen and modern society’s attention to skin cancer and high SPFs (now reaching up to 100), people were more concerned with avoiding heat stroke.

To prevent severe dehydration, people would take salt tablets with large amounts of water to replenish electrolytes. Today’s equivalent? Gatorade.

Allergies ailments

While sunburn and bug bites were relatively treatable before modern products were invented, those suffering from allergies were more or less out of luck.

The problem with allergies is there was no effective treatment until antihistamines became prevalent in the 1950s.

Before that, the only way to deal with allergies was to use steam to flush congested sinuses to temporarily alleviate symptoms.

More modern remedies


Home remedies used to be popular because they were often the best or only option people had. But that hasn’t kept people from using them instead of more modern products and medicines.

Gene Kramer, 82, said to treat any kind of skin rash, his dad would shoot a skunk and skin it and cook down the fat.

Although the solution might sound odd (or smelly), Kramer said it was the only thing they found to work. And the Kramers were onto something - skunk oil was commonly used in country folk medicine and as a home remedy to soothe and protect skin.

LaGrave, a graduate of Red River High School and UND, shared his homemade concoction for sore throat.

“(Take) a coffee cup of hot water, two teaspoons lemon juice and two teaspoons honey, then crush 1 (or 2) aspirin between two spoons and stir the honey, lemon juice and hot water with the aspirin spoons,” wrote Lagrave.

LaGrave said the concoction was more effective and less severe than his father’s trick, which was gargling hydrogen peroxide.

“The lemon, aspirin, honey and hot water concoction is more soothing, cleans mucus off the tongue and throat, and applies aspirin directly to that area,” LaGrave wrote in an email.

Christi Brose of Larimore, N.D., emailed the Herald about emu oil, which she uses to soothe her skin.

“I use emu oil for many different things,” she wrote. “It helps with cuts and scrapes to promote healing, and I put it on sunburn to help cool the burn.  I also use it in the winter on those painful skin cracks that I get from dry skin.”

Although official documentation on the effects or benefits of emu oil is scarce, the oil contains fatty acids, which reduce pain and swelling, which would explain its use for skin troubles and colds.


Call Richie at (701) 780-1134;  (800) 477-6572, ext. 1134 ; or send email to .

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