Your Favorite Weird Folk Remedies That Actually Work

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a dish of white goop (baking soda paste) and a roll of scotch tape in front of a first aid kit
Go-to mosquito bite remedies. Photo by author.

I have just returned from a camping trip, which means, regardless of precautions taken, I am now covered in itchy bumps. Mosquitos love me. I’m just one of those people. So my first course of action upon arriving home was to track down (look, my desk is a little messy) a roll of Scotch tape.

Who knew? This stupid-sounding folk remedy actually works for me, far more consistently than the more “proper” remedy, cortisone cream. Supposedly it has something to do with cutting off the bite’s exposure to air. Definitely it has to do with cutting off my ability to scratch the bite and make it worse. But whatever it does, it truly brings me both instant and long-term relief in most cases.

If you try to search the internet to find out why, you’ll find lots of derisive comments along the lines of, “but that makes no sense! That’s not how histamines work! This is fake because it’s nonsense!” But cortisone cream follows the rules. It works according to known laws of biochemistry. And yet, it doesn’t offer me anywhere near the relief a simple piece of Scotch tape does. So who are you to say what works?

Now, you will also find folks who deny that it works because they tried it and it failed. No harm done. Sometimes I have bites that are just too itchy for the tape to contain, myself, and that’s when I pull out ye olde baking soda. I like dolloping baking soda paste on bug bites. It cools and brings the swelling right down. And then I slap on some tape to keep me from scratching and inflaming the area again.

Baking soda paste is a bug bite remedy that’s outright recommended by medical professionals, and yet it still doesn’t make “sense.” Mosquito venom isn’t acidic. Why should changing the pH of the area by applying an alkaline substance have any effect? Especially when other people swear by applying acidic vinegar to bites, instead?

But, again, it works.

It got me thinking about folk remedies, why some people swear by methods that don’t necessarily make sense, yet some of those methods work for some people, and others work for others. There’s more to it than a placebo effect, because if believing something will work is the only reason these things work, then anything would work on the gullible, and the Scotch tape thing would have never worked on me (I was desperate and said, “What the heck, here’s some tape”).

Once I was walking through a bug-filled summer field with an essential oils guru, being, as usual, attacked by bugs. “Here,” she said, “It’s peppermint oil. Bugs hate it,” and she handed me an unmarked spray bottle. Indeed, the bugs scattered away from my legs! Instant relief! Peppermint oil rocks! Yet I have never had that kind of success with peppermint oil since. Either essential oils require being mixed by proper essential oil gurus to be truly effective, or she had peppermint-scented DEET in that bottle instead.

And then there are hiccup remedies. I am even more prone to hiccups than I am to bug bites. I rarely make it through a meal without my diaphragm freaking out. It’s not that I’m trying to talk and eat at the same time (I rarely talk as it is), I’m just apparently as klutzy about eating as I am walking. So if there’s a hiccup remedy, someone has suggested it to me, and I’ve tried it.

Indeed, most hiccup remedies are bunk. Even medically-suggested ones like holding your breath. Well, maybe holding your breath works for most people. I just hiccup through it.

Once I had a fit of hiccups, not while eating, but while working the floor of the Children’s Museum, attempting to interact with the public. A coworker told me, “Go get a sugar packet out of the Cafe and just swallow it. You’ll be fine.” So I did. And I was. HUH. A spoonful of sugar makes the hiccups go down. It only works with plain sugar though. You can’t just eat something sugary and expect the same results. But a spoonful of plain sugar settles the diaphragm right down.

Usually.

Sometimes.

I mean, at least it’s an excuse to shovel sugar into your mouth.

More reliable is the trick my yoga teacher taught me. Hold your arms out in a T, then slowly pump them up and down. It has to be slow and deliberate: wild flapping will only make the hiccups worse. It’s yoga, you need calm breathing and mindfulness. And that is a remedy that makes sense: you’re working the muscles around the diaphragm and controlling your breathing. Of course it affects hiccups! But it looks a little odd if you’re out in public.

My family knows well what I’m doing, though. Any more they remind me. “Do the birdie, mommy!” my daughter yells at the first hiccup.

The same daughter is also plagued with bug bites right now. She balked at my tape suggestion. “But now the tape is pinching and uncomfortable!” But after an evening of trying every other suggestion I could offer, she’s now taping her bites up herself. Sometimes something imperfect is better than nothing.

What’s the weirdest folk remedy that you swear by?