Placing sliced potatoes in a child’s socks to treat fever, catnip tea for colicky infants - these are just a couple of the folk remedies still used by urban African Americans, according to a new report on the topic.
In many cases, black moms and other caretakers use these alternative healing methods not because of their lack of access to traditional medical care, but simply because the remedies are recommended by their mothers and grandmothers.
“The use of folk remedies is not necessarily based on income poverty, but, rather, is a part of childcare that is traditional in the African-American community and has been handed down through the generations,” study author Dr. Lynn C. Smitherman told AMN Health.
Because parents may not always volunteer this information to their doctors, Smitherman noted, “the health care provider should inquire about folk remedies when caring for their patients, and counsel parents accordingly if the remedy may be harmful.”
Folk remedies, which include various herbs, food products, or household items recommended for healing purposes by lay individuals, rather than medical professionals, are known to be used by Southeast Asian and Hispanic communities. Little research has been conducted about its use among urban blacks.
To investigate, Smitherman, of Wayne State University School of Medicine in Detroit, Michigan, and her colleagues interviewed 107 caregivers, mostly mothers, of healthy black infants under 2 years old.
All of the caregivers, regardless of their educational level, said they had used at least one folk remedy to treat their child, the investigators report in this month’s issue of Pediatrics. And, the report indicates, many were knowledgeable about various types of folk remedies, even if they had never used them to treat their child’s illness.
When treating a feverish infant, for example, most of the caregivers were aware of the effectiveness of acetaminophen, based on information obtained from family members and medical professionals, but others also mentioned a cool bath and isopropyl alcohol - remedies usually passed on by mothers and grandmothers.
Lesser-cited remedies included cool drinks or popsicles and ibuprofen, as well as warming the child’s feet, undressing the child or placing potatoes or onions in his or her socks. When asked which remedy they had actually used, however, more than three-quarters of caregivers reported using acetaminophen.
When it came to treating colic, nearly 60 percent of respondents were aware that catnip or senna extract were folk remedies and 13 percent said they had used these herbs. In a few cases, caretakers said they had learned about these remedies from their mothers or grandmothers, but none said they had learned of the herbs from a medical professional.
Other folk remedies for colic included bicarbonate, chamomile, steam, and gripe water - a combination of dill, fennel and mint extracts, but none of the caretakers reported using these remedies.
When asked about folk remedies for teething, nearly all of the caretakers identified benzocaine and most (57 percent) said they had indeed used some over-the-counter benzocaine gel. This remedy was recommended not only by mothers and grandmothers, but also by other relatives, friends and medical staff, the report indicates.
Benzocaine was not the only remedy used, however. Some caretakers said they used a teething object and a few said they used whiskey to numb the infant’s gums.
Other folk remedies for teething included hanging a penny around the child’s neck - supposedly to draw out the body’s poisons - using cloves and other spices, placing a raw egg in a sock or drawer and giving the infant ice cubes or popsicles. Only a few caretakers were aware of these remedies, however, and fewer still reported using any of them.
While most of these folk remedies pose little or no danger to an infant, “there are some that caregivers should be cautioned about,” Smitherman said.
Isopropyl alcohol, for example, which quickly evaporates from the skin, may indeed reduce fever, but in cases where too-large amounts are used, the substance may inadvertently be inhaled, leading to alcohol poisoning, the report indicates.
Hanging a penny around a child’s neck may pose a strangulation risk. Further, using whiskey to treat teething can potentially cause ethanol poisoning or intoxication.
“Although most folk remedies are not harmful, it is important to let physicians know all medications, prescribed and otherwise, that (patients) are taking, both to make sure that the remedy is not harmful, and to make sure that it does not interact with any medications that may be prescribed,” Smitherman said.
SOURCE: Pediatrics, March 2005.
Revision date: July 8, 2011
Last revised: by Sebastian Scheller, MD, ScD