Parenting • Sep 09, 2013

5 home remedies that can do more harm than good

Some of grandma’s home remedies actually work—but occasionally they do more harm than good.  Here are the top five home medical treatments for kids that you want to avoid, and some better alternatives:

1.   Cotton-tipped swabs (including Q-TIPS)

The myth that cotton swabs are the path to pristine ears is pervasive – many people buy them only for this reason. While these swabs have many uses, cleaning the ear canal is not one of them – don’t believe me? Look on the box!

Using a cotton swab, even the most nimble-fingered parent ends up shoving wax farther back into the ear canal where it dries up and gets stuck. One of my most frustrating daily battles is trying to examine a squirming child’s eardrum, but finding my view blocked by a boulder of dried-up wax. Beyond the time and expense, the swab can cause trauma to the ear canal or eardrum, and the cotton can come off the swab and lodge in the ear.

Better solution: Do nothing! Ear wax will naturally move outwards, where it can easily be wiped away with a wet washcloth. If your child’s ears are particularly waxy, your pediatrician can recommend ear drops to help it break up and come out.

2.   Alcohol baths

Please don’t bathe your child in rubbing alcohol (or any other type!). It can be inhaled or absorbed through the skin and cause alcohol poisoning. While fevers can be a sign of serious illness (especially in infants or unvaccinated children), they commonly occur in response to colds or other viral infections. Fevers come from the brain, which only allows the temperature to rise to a safe level, rarely above 106 F.

Better solution: If your child is old enough (call your pediatrician for guidance), acetaminophen or ibuprofen are effective fever reducers, but you can try a cool wet washcloth on the forehead as well. Never give aspirin.

3.   Messing with an umbilical hernia

A baby’s small umbilical hernia is usually nothing to worry about. They often self-resolve, but if not a simple surgery is effective. Placing a coin on the umbilical stump and wrapping tightly with a cloth band is not effective. Beyond the needless effort, some kids develop skin breakdown or reactions to metals (usually we see this with belt buckles or earrings).

Better solution: Leave it alone, be patient, and if it persists the surgeon will fix it.

4.   Homeopathic Remedies

Healing herbs and amortar. Alternative medicine conceptSince the FDA took over-the-counter cough and cold medicine off the shelves for young children due to mounting safety concerns (and little evidence they helped), I have seen more and more kids on homeopathic “medicines.” I tell people to save their money.

Why? Start with the (completely unproven) theory that a substance that causes a certain symptom of a disease in healthy people will cure the same symptom in sick people. Would you want to treat your itchy skin with poison ivy?  The substance is mixed with water, and then diluted multiple times – often to the point where statistically there are NO molecules of the original substance left! Once I explain the theory to parents who show up with these potions, I ask, “Does that make any sense to you?”

One other thing to consider: if a product is labeled a nutritional supplement, it is not classified as a food nor a drug – thus there is NO regulation by the FDA. Again, read the label. For good measure, read more about serious side effects from a well-known “cold remedy.”

Better solution: Talk to your pediatrician! There may be a great medicine available to treat your child, or time may be all that’s required.

5.   Teething remedies

While your child may be fussy and uncomfortable while teething, it will pass – with or without intervention. Your grandfather may have cried less with whiskey rubbed on his gums, but please don’t continue the tradition – today, we know more about the risks of alcohol to children. Homeopathic teething tablets may (or may not, as discussed above) contain dangerous chemicals from the belladonna plant (also known as Deadly Nightshade!). In addition, avoid Orajel, Anbesol and other topical pain relievers, which can lead to a rare but potentially fatal disorder called methemoglobinemia.

Better solution: Doing nothing is perfectly acceptable. Acetaminophen or ibuprofen can help with pain (follow label directions) but often toddlers do just as well with something cold to mouth – try a popsicle, or you can soak a clean washcloth in tap water and freeze it for them.


  1. Someone should do a meta study and/or longitudinal as, I’ve often wondered if the fact that homeopathy is so popular and people swear by it, could it perhaps be a powerful form of the placebo effect? Which, the irrational aspect aside, it actually would be interesting to see how much health improvement is found simply because people “believe” such…

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