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Folk Remedies Part of African American Tradition

Using folk remedies to treat common childhood illnesses may be a cultural phenomenon rather than a result of lack of access to medical care, a new study suggests.

Researchers found folk remedies like cool baths and isopropyl alcohol to treat children’s fevers or catnip for colic are common in the black community, and use of home and folk remedies is not linked to education level of the caregiver.

“Surprisingly there was no relationship between their use and the level of education attained by the mother,” write researcher Lynn Smitherman, MD, of the Children’s Hospital of Michigan, in Detroit, and colleagues. “These findings suggest that folk remedy use is not necessarily attributable to restricted access to medical care and financial poverty but represents a tradition handed down by the elders of this culture as a part of child rearing.”

Folk remedies include herbs, food products, or household items that are recommended by members of the lay community.

Historically, use of folk remedies has been associated with a lack of access to health care because of a shortage of doctors, language or cultural barriers, socioeconomic status, or mistrust of doctors.

Folk Remedies Common Among Cultures

In the study, which appears in the March issue of Pediatrics, researchers surveyed 107 caregivers of healthy black children who were patients of the general pediatric clinic at Children’s Hospital of Michigan. The caregivers were asked about their knowledge of folk remedies and other home remedies that they had heard of to treat three common childhood conditions: fever, colic, and teething.

All of the participants were familiar with the use of folk remedies. Most caregivers learned of these home remedies from their mothers or grandmothers.

Older parents and caregivers were more likely to report using a folk or home remedy to treat common childhood ailments, but there was no difference in remedy use among mothers with different education levels.

Researchers say many of the folk remedies reported emerge from the belief in the black community that illness is caused by “impurities” in the body and that these impurities must be purged.

Some of the most commonly reported folk remedies were:

Fever:

—Although by definition not a folk remedy, acetaminophen (search) (the active ingredient in Tylenol) was listed most frequently by caregivers

—Cool baths

Isopropyl alcohol (search)

—Cool drinks/popsicles

—Undress child

Ibuprofen (search)

—Warm feet

—Potatoes or onions in socks

Colic

Catnip (search)

Senna extract (search)

—Other (Asafetida (search), paregoric (search), or bicarbonate (search))

Chamomile (search)

—Walk

—Cigarette smoke

Teething

—Over-the-counter benzocaine gel

—Teething object

—Whiskey

—Penny

—Ice cubes/popsicles

—Egg

Potentially Harmful Home Remedies

Researchers say most of the folk remedies used by the caregivers in this study have not been shown to be harmful. However, some of the remedies could be cause for concern because they have been associated with harmful side effects.

Those potentially risky home remedies include:

—Isopropyl alcohol. Use of alcohol to reduce body temperature is useful because it rapidly evaporates. However, it is also absorbed through the skin, and large amounts used on the skin may also be inhaled, which could cause alcohol poisoning in some children.

—Asafetida. Sold as a tincture (search) in pharmacies or as a spice in ethnic food stores, asafetida is used by some to treat colic and abdominal discomfort. But use of this herb has been associated with a condition that affects the ability of red blood cells to carry oxygen (methemoglobinemia (search).

—Cigarette smoke. Use of smoke to treat colic is highly discouraged due to the negative effects of tobacco smoke on children’s respiratory systems.

—Whiskey. Used to treat teething pain, whiskey can put children at risk for alcohol poisoning (search) or cause intoxication, even in small amounts.

—Bicarbonate. The use of bicarbonate as a home remedy for colic has been associated with high sodium levels (hypernatremia (search), which can lead to coma and death.

—Pennies/buttons. Tying a penny or button on a string around a child’s neck to treat or prevent teething discomfort should be discouraged because of the risk of strangulation.

By Jennifer Warner, reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

SOURCE: Smitherman, L. Pediatrics, March 2005; vol 115: pp e297-e304.