Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional, nor is this article meant to be used as your only source of medical advice. This is merely a recount of remedies that were used in my family. If you want to try them - great, but do consult with your doctor first.
Having spent all of my childhood and teenage years in Ukraine, and all of my adult life to date in the United States, it is no surprise that whenever I get sick, I always wish I had my Dad's arsenal of home remedies on hand. I don't like pills because of their "chemical" nature, and besides - they are boring. When telling someone about your recovery, taking Mucinex for a couple of days doesn't sound anywhere near as exciting as some of the stuff we used back at home when I was growing up.
While the effectiveness of many home remedies comes from sheer power of suggestion, some have measurable physical impact on the organism, resulting in changes that allow one to fight off the infection.
Mustard seed powder
Mustard seed by itself is virtually flavorless. What gives it the oomph we taste in the mustard, is bruising and grinding of the seed and then mixing it with water. Cold water produces spicier mustard, while hot water produces the milder variety.
Mustard powder has rubefacient properties, which means it has the ability to increase circulation in the area of skin it comes in contact with. The two common applications I became very familiar with as a kid, due to having had every possible cough and cold that came within five miles of me, were mustard powder foot bath and mustard squares.
As most of you know, one of the common effects of a bad cold or flu is feeling as if you just cannot get warm. So, the idea around the foot bath is to get your feet warm, improve your circulation, cause you to sweat and jump-start the breaking of the fever. My Dad would mix about half a cup of mustard powder with three gallons of very hot water and make me slowly get my feet into the mix. I think I mentioned in Ukrainian Vignettes, that had I had a pair of special red socks reserved for when I was sick. During the mustard foot baths, my Dad would set the socks next to me and tell me to soak my feet until they turned the same color as the socks. Usually this took about 20-30 minutes, during which he constantly refreshed the hot water. Once the desired hue was achieved, I dried my feet vigorously with a warmed-up towel, put the socks on, and then had my Dad carry me to bed (he insisted that I must not touch the cold floor, otherwise it would ruin the effect).
The mustard powder squares operate on the same principle and are used to help loosen the chest congestion. Each square is made of heavy paper about 3 inches on the side and coated with mustard powder on one side. They are dipped in lukewarm water one by one and placed on the patient's chest and back with the mustard side toward the skin. The patient is then wrapped in a heavy towel and a blanket and propped up between two large pillows to maintain the pressure of the squares against the skin for about twenty minutes. The process is rather agonizing, because once the mustard powder starts releasing its heat, you suddenly get a very clear idea of how a hamburger must feel when being pressed onto the grill with a spatula. (In our family it was considered a matter of personal pride, if you could sit through the entire twenty minutes without complaining - and that applied both to children and adults.) After twenty minutes, the patient is unbundled, rubbed down vigorously (both to keep the circulation going and to wipe off the mustard goop), and then dressed into several layers (t-shirt, pajamas and a sweater) to keep the heat in and - again - to get the person to sweat and break the fever.
The purpose of the jars is the same as that of the mustard squares - to loosen congestion. However, instead of increasing circulation, the jars achieve this goal by suction. Each jar is shaped like a little light bulb made of very heavy glass. A box of jars includes 12 of these babies and a long wire wick. The patient is laid out face down. Each jar is rubbed down with alcohol. The tip of the wick is wrapped in cotton and also dipped in alcohol to make a little torch. The wick is lit, and then things have to go quickly.
The wick is stuck into a jar to burn all the oxygen and create vacuum, and then the jar is quickly placed onto the patient's back and pressed down. This process is repeated with all twelve jars (or however many you can fit onto the person's back). Some of them pop off and have to be re-applied. Then the patient is carefully covered with a blanket and left for about fifteen minutes. Due to the vacuum the jars create a kind of suction, which is how congestion is loosened up. Unfortunately, the suction gets quite intense and also creates a bunch of neat round bruises on one's back. The bruises can take up to ten days to dissolve, so even if you fully recover from your cold, appearing shirtless anywhere is probably not advisable.
Goat fat rub
Yes, it's every bit as icky as it sounds. However, it is really no different than Vicks VapoRub - it's just more stinky, is all. The principle is the same - you scoop the goat fat out of a jar and rub it onto patient's chest and back. The resulting vapors and the vigorous motion of the rubbing itself improve circulation and help loosen congestion. As an added bonus, your kid might smell like a baby goat until the next bath.
Similar effect can be achieved by using a vodka or pure alcohol rub - just make sure you don't let your patient anywhere near open flames until the stuff wears off.
Home-made inhalation therapy
When I was growing up, the professional-looking electrical inhalators were only available at hospitals and only to the patients with extreme respiratory ailments, like severe asthma. So, the rest of us made do with the less sophisticated version - a little teapot with a long straight spout (to allow the vapors to cool as they traveled up).
Here is the way it works: you fill the little teapot with water about one-third of the way, and then add any herb you can think of: mint and rosemary being at the top of the list. If you have any tiger balm, scoop up a tiny bit (about the size of the top of a match) and toss it in as well. Let the water come to a boil and then turn the heat down as low as it will go. Grab a piece of heavy printer paper (yes, this is really hi-tech), roll it into a tube and tape it along the edge so that it would stay rolled up. The tube should be big enough to fit over the spout of your little teapot but small enough to fit into the patient's mouth. Put the tube over the spout and make the patient breathe slowly through the tube. This has to be done very slowly and carefully, to keep from getting burned - that steam is going to be hot. Keep it up for ten-fifteen minutes.
Onion and garlic
Onion and garlic are yummy when sauteed and added to a variety of dishes. They are also well known for their medicinal properties: infection-fighting, cardiovascular and respiratory benefits, as well as building up the organism's defenses against diabetes.
The two onion- and garlic-based remedies used in our home may come across as a tad sadistic, but boy, were they effective! The first one was used against nasal congestion. Three drops of garlic or onion juice were mixed with a shot of warm water and then dribbled down the patient's nose. Yes, it felt like your eyes were going to pop out and your nose was going to take off your face like a rocket, but once these feeling subsided, you realized that any trace of congestion and the associated headache were gone.
My Dad used this trick on me when I got sick two days before having to perform in a large concert. Ordinarily, I would have gone for a milder treatment like inhalation, but this was an emergency - I had to be whipped into shape quickly - and the garlic nose drip was the only way to get there. It was agonizing, but it worked.
The other method is using a bit of garlic or onion mush on the acupoint located on the back of your hand in the indentation between your index finger and thumb. The quantity of mush is very small - half a teaspoon will suffice - and it shouldn't be taped to the hand for more than five minutes, otherwise you might actually get a kind of chemical burn from the juices. I am not sure exactly why this works, but it does - especially for fevers and sore throats.
Hot raspberry wine
This has always been the "when all else fails medicine" in our household, used against particularly stubborn fevers. Raspberry is a well-known natural antioxidant and fever reducer, as are blackberry and currant. We grew our own raspberry in great quantities, part of which were eaten on the spot, part - used in summer compotes, part - made into preserves and wine.
The hot raspberry wine treatment usually followed the mustard powder foot bath, to augment the effects of both and get a kind of fever-busting resonance. If you decide to try this, keep in mind two things: 1) your patient must be ready for bed - washed, fed, done with the bathroom and bundled up; 2) you must be prepared to stay up a greater portion of the night with a stack of towels and clean sheets on hand.
Heat up enough wine to fill up a large coffee mug almost to a boiling point. Have the patient drink it slowly in long sips. By the time all is said and done the patient will pass out - especially if it's a child. Within 30 minutes to an hour, the patient will start sweating profusely - and this is where you come in with towels and clean sheets. The patient must not be allowed to stay cold and wet for any period of time. Keep him or her dry and warm, which means changing the sheets and towels several times through the night. Also, have some type of warm beverage on hand - like decaffeinated tea or broth - to keep the patient well-hydrated. By morning, your patient should be fever-free and sleeping. Have some easy-on-the-stomach foods ready for when he or she wakes up, because the patient is going to be hungry as a wolf.
Skin and bones
Being a virtually trouble-free kid in terms of behavior, I made up for it health-wise (or rather, lack thereof). Born an eight-month premie at whopping four pounds, I managed to pick up a skin infection while still at the hospital. In addition, my arms and legs were so crooked, they couldn't even measure me properly. Once Mom and Dad brought me home and the rest of the family go over the initial jubilation due to the fact that I made it out alive, the question arose of what to do with me next. Literally - nobody knew how to pick me up or handle me because I was so fragile, twisted up and generally looking like an odd mix of a monkey, a tarantula and a frog. This is when my Grandfather Vasily stepped up to the bar and took over.
Having grown up in a small village in the north of Russia, Grandpa was very familiar with herb lore and with therapeutic massage and exercise used to shape limbs and develop muscle. For several months he worked on straightening my arms and legs and generally making me look more like a human being (starting off with something as simple as just letting me hold onto one of his thumbs and pulling me up gently with one arm, while holding my feet down with the other). Grandpa also took upon himself the responsibility for bathing me, which made sense considering he was the only one who wasn't afraid to handle me for fear of breaking me in half.
He shopped the local produce stores and farmers' markets for the right mix of herbs - no simple task considering I was born in February and stuff like that was very seasonal and not readily available in early spring. The bath mix he eventually put together to clear up my skin infection and improve my general health in the process included the following: celandine (historically used in Russia against dermatitis and rosacea), ledum (believed to inactivate the tick-borne infection linked to Lyme Disease), immortelle (not sure about the health benefits, but Grandpa may have picked it because it smelled good) and a silver ruble Grandpa inherited from his mom (silver being a natural purifier).
He bathed me in the mix twice a week for six months. And while I remained susceptible to colds for the rest of my life, not only did my skin infection go away, but I have never had any skin issues ever since. When my classmates struggled with the puberty-related skin problems, I sailed through with maybe one or two pimples total. To this day, I have no breakouts, no wrinkles and almost no sign of aging. I guess Grandpa knew what he was doing. :-)