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Strange Flu Remedies in History

It is odd to think about, but the flu shot has not been around terribly long in the grand scheme of things. The vaccine itself was developed in the 1930s when the virus was first isolated and studied, and it was approved for use by U.S. soldiers during World War II in 1945, followed by civilians the next year. Although the virus itself went undiscovered for quite some time, the illness has been reported for at least 500 years. While a vaccine is the best protection we have today, there were some odd “treatments” and prevention methods that were used throughout history.

In 1918 – 1919, the world was rattled by what was labeled as the “Spanish Flu” epidemic. Around 500 million people were estimated to have been infected with the virus, and an estimated 50 million had died – 675,000 in the U.S. – as a result. This led to many people attempting to take control and keep the sickness away, but with not much medical knowledge, some of the methods and ideas were a bit odd.

Reader’s Digest compiled a list of the oddest flu remedies people believed would work:

Bloodletting: Essentially, the idea was to drain the body of blood, which, in turn, would also remove the toxins and disease, curing whatever the patient had, whether it was the flu or demons. Even George Washington had participated, having roughly 40% of his blood taken during an illness that ultimately led to his death (what actually caused his death is still up for debate). Obviously, the practice of bloodletting is quite dangerous and when it was practiced, killed many people. Regardless, this treatment remained common, and was still being used as recently as the 1920s.

Laxatives: Along the same lines of bloodletting, the idea was to help flush the body of various toxins as a cure, just in an easier, somewhat-less-threatening way. An advertisement from 1930 boasted: “A small quantity of Pluto Water (diluted in plain hot water) each morning upon arising, will keep you regular and ward off early winter colds and flu.” However, laxatives could lead to potential dehydration, and many of these medications at the time contained toxic, cancer-causing ingredients.

Enemas: In keeping with the previous two ideas, enemas were also thought of as a way to help doctors fight back against the flu. Since these ideas were not very effective, it was easy to go overboard with “treatments” in hopes of feeling better. One patient in 1936 took two different laxatives, tried a handful of home remedies, and received seven enemas within three weeks.

Quinine: This treatment is actually a natural treatment for malaria made from the bark of the cinchona tree in South America. Because of its effectiveness against malaria-related fevers, doctors thought it would be useful against the flu epidemic in 1918. However, what they did not realize is that the treatment works against malaria because it fights off the parasite. Since the flu is a virus, it had no effect on patients.

Whiskey: The beverage gained popularity as a treatment option mainly during prohibition because the only way you could get it legally was via prescription from your doctor. Once it was legal again, it was suggested in a 1941 Time magazine article that whiskey was a great painkiller. We now know that just one shot of whiskey disrupts sleep, which is essential to healing, and it should never be mixed with medications, so probably best to leave this “treatment” in the cabinet.

Sliced Onions: Placing sliced onions around the house was thought to keep the flu from spreading to other members of the family. People believed that the onions “absorbed” the virus. Unfortunately, it did not work – and probably made everyone’s homes smell quite pungent.

Inhaling Fumes: In 1918, during the world-wide flu pandemic, English villagers observed factory workers regularly exposed to noxious gases had lower rates of flu illnesses. In hopes that the gases prevented the illness, parents would actually bring children to the nearest industrial plant rather than a doctor. During an investigation by a sanitary officer, he did find that while the general rate of flu was at 40%, those who were exposed to nitric acid were at 11%, and those who inhaled gunpowder was only at 5%. These days, we understand that inhaling toxic chemical fumes is not a great remedy for the flu (or anything, really).

The Color Red: Of all remedies, this particular one was unique. According to some folk-medicine records, wearing red to prevent the flu was a great preventative measure, because the flu just “didn’t like” the color red. A letter sent to the Public Health Service suggested the servicemen should wear red ribbons around their chests because “the flu is the Devil and Devil don’t work with red.”

While we do not recommend using any of these as a cure or prevention for the flu, some of these methods are actually dangerous and life-threatening, so please do not attempt. Thankfully, scientific research has brought us safer and more effective prevention methods, like the flu vaccine. If you still require your annual flu shot this year, or you feel you may have come down with the flu, visit one of our convenient locations today.