Of course there are some health staples you should never be without—bandages or OTC pain relievers come to mind. But you can treat or cure a surprising number of minor ailments with these unexpected household objects and foods.
Next time you burn your tongue on piping hot pizza or come down with an unshakeable case of hiccups, keep these tips from The Big Doctors Book of Home Remedies in mind.
Compiled by: Lauren Gelman
Home cure: Vodka
Use it for: Foot odor
If your feet smell less than swell, wipe them down with a vodka-soaked washcloth to get rid of the stench. It’s the same principle as rubbing alcohol (which works equally well if you’d rather drink your Grey Goose). Vodka contains alcohol, which is antiseptic and drying, so it destroys odor-causing fungus and bacteria and dries out the moisture that lets these organisms grow.
Home cure: Pencil
Use it for: Headaches
When you’re stressed or anxious, you subconsciously clench your jaw and teeth; this strains the muscle that connects your jaw to your temples and can trigger a tension headache. A solution: “Put a pencil between your teeth but don’t bite,” says Fred Sheftell, MD, director of the New England Center for Headache in Stamford, CT. You automatically relax your jaw muscle to do this, which can prevent the pain.
Home cure: Yogurt
Use it for: Bad breath
Preliminary research shows that the live bacteria in yogurt can suppress levels of bad breath–causing bacteria. “Good” bugs in yogurt may crowd out the “bad” stink-causing bacteria or create an unhealthy environment for it, says John C. Moon, DDS, a cosmetic and general dentist in Half Moon Bay, CA.
Home cure: Listerine
Use it for: Blisters
The classic breath freshener—and powerful antiseptic—can also do a number on blisters. Moisten a cotton ball with Listerine and dab it on your blister 3 times a day until the area dries out and no longer hurts, says Janet Maccaro, PhD, CNC, a holistic nutritionist and certified nutrition consultant in Scottsdale, AZ.
Home cure: Lemon balm tea
Use it for: Cold sores
Lemon balm is a first-choice herbal treatment for cold sores, which are caused by a type of herpes virus (not the same kind that’s sexually transmitted). It has antiviral properties that work to tame herpes outbreaks, says James Duke, PhD, author of The Green Pharmacy. Prepare lemon balm tea by brewing 2 to 4 tablespoons of the herb per cup of boiling water. Let it cool, then dot with a cotton ball on the cold sore several times a day.
Home cure: Licorice
Use it for: Calluses and corns
“Licorice contains estrogen-like substances that soften the hard skin of calluses and corns,” says Georgianna Donadio, PhD, director of the National Institute of Whole Health. Make this homemade licorice paste: Grind up a few licorice sticks, mix them with ½ teaspoon of petroleum jelly, and rub the mixture into the rough areas of your feet.
Home cure: Tennis ball
Use it for: Achy feet
For an easy, free mini massage that stretches and soothes your arches, slip off your shoes and roll each foot over a tennis ball, golf ball, or soup can for a minute or two. To cool throbbing feet, roll them over a bottle of frozen water.
Home cure: Olive oil
Use it for: Eczema
Soothe flareups by applying olive oil directly to the irritated area, says Christopher Dannaker, MD, assistant professor of dermatology at the University of California San Francisco. Packed with antioxidants that can reduce the inflammation associated with eczema, olive oil is the basis for many moisturizers; when used alone, it lacks chemical irritants you may find in store-bought creams. As a bonus, olive oil’s antioxidants help prevent and repair damage that can lead to wrinkles and brown spots.
Rub 1 teaspoon per square inch of skin, which creates a seal that prevents skin from drying out. For serious cases, cover oil-slathered skin with plastic wrap overnight to lock moisture in.
Home cure: Sugar
Use it for: Hiccups
A teaspoon of sugar swallowed dry can stop hiccups in minutes, says Andre Dubois, MD, PhD, a professor of medicine in the emerging infectious diseases graduate program at Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, MD. The sugar is believed to modify the nerve muscles that would otherwise tell the muscles in the diaphragm to contract spasmodically and contribute to hiccups.
Home cure: iPod
Use it for: High blood pressure
Thirty minutes of the right tunes every day can help lower BP, according to research from the University of Florence in Italy. Researchers found that people on a medication for hypertension further lowered their blood pressure after they listened to music while breathing slowly. Systolic readings (the first number) decreased an average of 3.2 points in a week; a month later, readings were down 4.4 points.
Home cure: Olives or lemons
Use it for: Motion sickness
Motion sickness causes you to produce excess saliva, which can make you nauseated, some doctors say. Compounds in olives called tannins dry out your mouth and can help soothe the queasies. Pop a couple at the first hint of nausea; sucking on a lemon can also do the trick.
Home cure: Vegetable oil
Use it for: Brittle nails
In order to really fix dry nails, you have to address the problem of too-little moisture. In addition to using hand lotion regularly, try this nighttime treatment from dermatologist Dee Anna Glaser, MD: Before you go to bed, apply vegetable oil to your hands, then put on vinyl gloves or wrap your hands in plastic wrap to keep the oil off your bedding. The hand coverings force the oil to penetrate your skin, preventing your hands and nails from getting too dry.
Home cure: Ice cream
Use it for: Pizza burn
The tissue on the roof of your mouth is only a few millimeters thick, so it’s very sensitive to hot foods. If you didn’t wait to let that pepperoni slice cool down, soothe your scorched mouth with a spoonful of ice cream or frozen yogurt. “The cool can bring temporary relief,” says Richard Antaya, MD. Swigging a cold drink or putting an ice cube in your mouth should also do the trick, but be sure to remove the cube quickly before it becomes painful.
Home cure: Peppermint or cinnamon gum
Use it for: The stress of a traffic-packed commute
In a NASA-funded study, scientists from Wheeling Jesuit University monitored the responses of 25 college students during simulated driving scenarios. The volunteers reported that peppermint lowered their feelings of fatigue or anxiety by 20%. Peppermint and cinnamon each decreased frustration by 25%, increased alertness by 30%, and made the ride seem 30% shorter. Not a gum or candy person? Buy peppermint or cinnamon aromatherapy diffusers for the car.
Home cure: Apple
Use it for: Whiter teeth
Crunchy fruits and vegetables act as little toothbrushes when you chew them; they have a natural cleansing action that works on tooth enamel to remove stains. In particular, “apples have a gentle malic acid that also helps dissolve stains,” says Jennifer Jabow, DDS, of Park 56 Dental in New York City.
Home cure: Baking soda
Use it for: Urinary tract infections
At the first sign of symptoms, drink a solution made with ¼ teaspoon of baking soda mixed in 8 ounces of water. Continue this once a day until you can get a culture done at a doctor’s office and start antibiotics. Baking soda makes the bladder environment more alkaline, which reduces bacteria’s ability to multiply, says Larrian Gillespie, MD, a retired assistant clinical professor of urology and urogynecology in Los Angeles.
Home cure: Cloves
Use it for: Cuts
Sprinkle powdered cloves on a cut to keep it from becoming infected, says Duke. Clove oil is rich in eugenol, a chemical that’s both antiseptic and pain-killing.
Home cure: Papaya
Use it for: Smoother skin
This tropical fruit contains papain, a protein-eating enzyme that dissolves the dead cells on your skin’s surface that can make it look dull and rough and leave it prone to breakouts. When used twice a month, this peel leaves skin softer, smoother, and more radiant:
Grind 2 tablespoons of washed and peeled papaya in a food processor and add 1 tablespoon of dry oatmeal. Pat this mixture onto clean skin and let it set for 10 minutes before wiping off with a wet washcloth. The enzymes in papaya are gentle, which is why this is an ideal treatment for those with sensitive skin. However, to be safe, do a test spot behind your ear the first time you try it.
Home cure: Duct tape
Use it for: Warts
Yes, this really does work! Covering warts with duct tape eliminates them better than freezing them off, according to a study published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine. In the study, the duct tape eliminated 85% of the warts after 2 months, compared with 60% with the freezing method.
To use duct tape safely, clean the area. Then cut a piece of duct tape to a size slightly bigger than the wart. Apply the duct tape to the site and rub into place. Every 3 days, remove the tape and file down dead skin with a pumice stone or nail file. Repeat until the wart disappears. Chemicals in the tape suffocate and kill the wart.