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Back in the Day! …Health Myths your Mama Believed

I was thinking recently, when my daughter got sick, about how incredibly lucky we are to have a wealth of knowledge at our fingertips. By jumping online, we can seek out a multitude of credible sources and access creative home remedies for everything that ails us. With the power of the internet, we can nip symptoms in the bud long before we have to take our kids in to the doctor.

Compare this to what our moms did when we got sick in those “primitive” pre-Google days. They referenced the trusty, dusty old family tome: The Mayo Clinic Book. Tucked in the family bookshelf next to the Encyclopedia Britannica set, this was the ultimate dictionary of all that might possibly ail you. It was thick in a way that reference books don’t dare be thick anymore. I mean this thing was heavy. There was a handy self-help section that used flow charts  to narrow your diagnosis down until it inevitably led to stage four cancer. And when you wanted to torture your sibling, you’d flip straight to the very graphic colored photo section in the middle and force them to look at those pictures. Nothing showed the painful detail of a gout inflammation quite like 1980’s Fujifilm.

If you seemed exceptionally sick, then your mama would expend the extra effort and call the advice nurse. In Kaiser terms, this was a super nice Filipina lady whom I always suspected was reading her advice from the very same Mayo Clinic Book.

Then, after exhausting these two resources, mama would utilize the same folk remedies that she’d picked up from her mama, and her mama’s mama, and her mama’s mama’s mama before her… Oh lord, that’s a lot of mama’s!

For example, in our family, we believed that 7-Up was a magical cure all. When I was growing up, I didn’t even realize people drank 7-Up when they weren’t sick, because when you had a fever, you better believe that mom was gonna serve you up some flat 7-Up with Saltine crackers. Any time we had the flu or a stomach ache, she’d bust out the 7-Up and stir it with a spoon. Of course, we weren’t fancy enough to keep lemons in the house, but I’ve been told that adding lemon to 7-Up is a popular cure with Mexican parents.

I’m not sure where this blind faith in 7-Up came from, but I imagine the Mad Men used the sickness angle in an ad campaign at some point. It was the Ayer’s Sarsaparilla of our mom’s’ generation. (Nowadays, I keep Sprite in the fridge instead. Handy tip: it’s been scientifically shown to help cure hangovers!)

Another family cure of highly questionable effectiveness was the Vicks VapoRub. Oh, this stuff was gross! But whenever you were congested, mom would rub that mentholated nastiness all over your chest and neck. Then you’d have to lay flat on your back, careful not to roll over and rub it off. Not fun when you were sick.

When flu season hit really hard and your temperature spiked, mom would have to chase that fever demon out with an ice cold bath. You’d sit in the tub and shiver uncontrollably as she slowly poured the bathwater over your back with a recycled margarine tub. You’d curse her name as she held you in the world’s longest and most excruciating bath. The water was room temperature, but it felt like glacial torture when you had a fever of 104. Of course, we know now that cold baths are not recommended for children with fevers, but this was the advice that mama was given…

Once you were all better, mom would make sure you didn’t get sick again by bundling you up in layers to fortify you from the winter’s chill. (A paradox of when she was freezing the fever out of you the week before). We all remember that famous scene from A Christmas Story where Ralphie’s little brother is dressed in so many layers of sweaters and scarves that he falls in the snow and can’t get himself back up. This was the result of well-meaning moms everywhere! But did you know that you don’t catch a cold from actually being cold? This is one health myth that seems to prevail. Studies suggest that cold weather may weaken your immune system, but the primary reason that people tend to catch colds during the winter is because they’re staying inside more often, in close proximity to each others’ germs.

…Looking back, I realize that our moms were doing the best they could and working with the resources they had at the time to nurture us back to health and to keep us healthy. Being a member of the last pre-internet generation, I have a certain dark nostalgia for the days of folk cures and the Mayo Clinic “family Bible.” Things change so quickly now from one generation to the next. Still, I’m grateful for WebMD!

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