12 weird home remedies: Fact or faked?

Which home remedies are real, and which are a waste of time?
© MSN Healthy Living // © MSN Health

Years before germs and viruses were discovered, illness and sickness were blamed on everything from curses to "bad air" and the evil eye. Now we know better. Still, some old remedies stick around, and people continue to use them. Surprisingly, there are nuggets of truth in some of these home remedies. Our experts separate fact from fake.

By Linda Melone for MSN Healthy Living

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A bowl of onions in a room wards off the flu

Fact or fake? Fake!

In the 1500s – before the discovery of germs – people believed onions could absorb the "noxious air" they attributed to diseases such as the bubonic plague. Onions were reputed to absorb the air and keep it from infecting people. Truth is, the only way onions may ease cold and flu symptoms is if you add them to chicken soup. "Hot beverages and soup produce beneficial effects on clearing the nasal passages," says Michael T. Murray, a naturopathic doctor and author of The Encyclopedia of Healing Foods (Atria Books, 2005). "Chicken soup has shown benefits in several investigations beyond its benefit as a hot beverage. The latest study focused on a specific small protein (carnosine) in chicken soup which was shown to protect against viral injuries to the immune system."

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Baking soda reduces the pain of urinary tract infections

Fact or fake? Fact!

The discomfort of urinary tract infections can make you miserable if you can't see a doctor right away. A simple baking soda mixture can ease pain in the meantime. "Baking soda helps make the bladder environment more alkaline, reducing the bacteria's ability to multiply," says Laurie Steelsmith, a Hawaii-based naturopathic physician and author of Natural Choices for Women's Health (Random House). You'll still need to see a doctor, however, since it does not kill the bacteria associated with the infection. Dissolve a teaspoon of baking soda in a cup of water and drink all at once, recommends Steelsmith. This can be repeated 10 hours later if needed – only if you are still in severe pain. (Continued use can cause low potassium levels and should not be used by seniors.) "Or try simply sitting in a warm bath to ease symptoms," says Steelsmith.

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Honey helps heal wounds

Fact or fake? Fact!

More than just a sweet idea, a lot of research supports the use of honey as a healing agent. Honey is most likely effective as a wound healing agent due to its antibacterial properties, says Adam Friedman, the director of dermatologic research at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. "Honey reportedly has an inhibitory effect to around 60 species of bacteria." Honey not only produces a high osmotic effect (this refers to shifts in water content in bacterial cells which lead to cell damage or death), but it can produce low levels of hydrogen peroxide, a free radical that is toxic to bacteria at this low concentration but safe to human cells, says Friedman. Ideally, Friedman recommends using medical-grade honey products for wound healing purposes, such as New Zealand manuka (Leptospermum scoparium) honey and Australian Leptospermum honey, also known as Medihoney. Apply liberally and cover with a nonadherent dressing; change once or twice a day.

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Ice packs under the armpit bring down a high fever

Fact or fake? Fact!

Most of the time it's not necessary to bring down a fever. Since most viruses and bacteria thrive at our normal body temperature of 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit, fever plays an important role in fighting infection, says Dennis Jordanides, an internist with Hoag Center for Primary Care Medicine in Newport Beach, Calif. "However, in cases involving a young child or in an adult with a fever over 103 degrees, ice packs under the arm may be recommended," says Jordanides. The area under the arm possesses a large blood supply close to the skin, so an ice pack decreases the temperature of the blood that runs through that area, decreasing the body's core temperature, says Jordanides. "Ask your doctor before trying this." If your doctor gives the go-ahead, put ice in a large resealable plastic baggie and wrap it in a towel before placing it under the arm for no longer than 20 minutes.

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A copper penny over a bee sting provides relief from pain and swelling

Fact or fake: Fake!

Save your money. There is no credible research to show that taping a penny over a bee sting relieves the pain or swelling. You're in luck, however, if you have an aloe plant nearby. A study published in the Australas Medical Journal (June, 2012) showed that aloe vera gel possesses antibacterial properties. "Bees inject a local toxin that creates an inflammatory reaction, and aloe helps it calm down," says Jordanides. Typically found in a gel form (sold in drugstores and health food stores), apply the aloe liberally and leave it on until it's completely absorbed; apply four times a day.

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Licorice helps heal sore throats

Fact or fake? Fact!

Licorice does help sore throats, but don't run out for a bag of candy licorice vines just yet. The licorice flavor in drugstore candy comes from anise oil, not the real deal. "There's no licorice in licorice candy," says Jacob Teitelbaum, a board-certified internist and the medical director of the Fibromyalgia and Fatigue Centers. Glycyrrhiza, the active ingredient in licorice root, has been shown to soothe sore throats, as well as ease digestive complaints. "Licorice helps slow down the breakdown of the stress handler hormone called cortisol," says Teitelbaum. "Clinically, inadequate cortisol levels are associated with increased sore throats, and supporting your body's own natural cortisol helps decrease symptoms and makes the sore throat go away more quickly." Get licorice teabags at your local health food store and drink a cup of licorice tea twice a day, recommends Teitelbaum. (Note: Avoid licorice if you have high blood pressure, and do not take it after 6 p.m., as it may cause sleeplessness.)

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Duct tape gets rid of warts

Fact or fake? Fact!

As the handyman's default fix for nearly everything, duct tape for healing warts may sound like a joke, but studies show it actually works. "Duct tape ...  is a highly effective, nonpainful, cheap treatment for warts," says dermatologist Friedman. Caused by the human papillomavirus, the virus camps out in the skin's upper layers, hiding from the body's immune system. The tape appears to work by irritating the skin and stimulating the body's immune system to attack the virus that causes the warts, Friedman explains. "If you would like to try this, do so only under the supervision of a physician," says Friedman. Cut the duct tape approximately a quarter-inch larger than the actual wart(s). After six days, remove the tape, soak the wart, then gently remove it with a thick emery board or pumice stone and leave uncovered overnight. Use a new piece of duct tape and repeat until the wart resolves or for a maximum of two months.

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Toothpaste takes the itch out of bug bites

Fact or fake? Fact!

The same product that keeps your teeth pearly white may also help take the sting out of bug bites — although not all toothpastes work equally well. Most insect bites may be treated initially with a compress after cleaning with soap and water to minimize the possibility of infection, says Friedman. "Toothpaste containing peppermint oil can be useful in patients who do not have known allergies to this ingredient. Its cooling effect can obscure the nerve transmission of itch." Toothpaste containing propylene glycol and sodium lauryl sulfate may cause an allergic skin reaction, however, and should be avoided. Apply a small amount to the affected area no more than twice a day.

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Chewing fennel or caraway seeds eases indigestion

Fact or fake? Fact!

Instead of reaching for an over-the-counter remedy for indigestion, turn to your spice rack for a natural approach. "Chewing fennel or caraway seeds eases digestion, as both offer carminative (gas reducing) effects," says Amy Rothenberg, a naturopathic doctor in Enfield, Conn. "The seeds reduce gas formation and cramping, which may well be due to their high mineral (especially magnesium) content. If you have ongoing issues with digestion, however, it's important to get to the bottom of what is causing the complaint," says Rothenberg. For occasional indigestion, chew fennel seeds (up to a teaspoon a day) after meals or between meals. Fennel can also be used in the tea form: Boil a half teaspoon of seeds in a cup of water for five to 10 minutes; cool and drink.

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