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10 historical hay fever cures you DEFINITELY shouldn’t try at home

Sick of sneezing, coughing and sniffing your way through the summer? Just be grateful you’re experiencing your symptoms in the present day. To mark the launch of a brand new history podcast, Time Travellers, contributor Dr Alun Withey reviews some of our forefathers’ most bizarre treatments for hay fever and the summer cold...

Being ill in the summertime is no fun at all. While everyone else is sitting outside with a cool drink, you’re trapped indoors with itchy eyes, a pouring nose, a tickly throat and sudden, violent transports of sneezing. Quite possibly, you’re one of the UK’s millions of hay fever sufferers. Or – perhaps harder to take after coming through a long, cold winter unscathed – you’ve gone and caught a summer cold.

The concept of hay fever isn’t actually as old as the history I study – it wasn’t even recognised by the medical profession until 1819. But people in the past suffered just as we do – and in the 17th century, colds were a serious business.

Back then, the body was thought to consist of four fluids – known as “humours” – that existed in a precarious balance. If the balance was upset, illness would surely follow.

Summer sniffles, therefore, weren’t just viewed as mild, fleeting conditions, but as potential signs of something more serious. A snotty nose could be a sign that the body was putrefying, while a sore throat might suggest an imminent mortification. Unsurprisingly, therefore, individuals constantly monitored their bodies and paid close attention to their symptoms.

Standard procedure for the treatment of pretty much any ailment in this period would involve bloodletting and/or a good purge (i.e. taking a substance to stimulate the bowels or induce vomiting). These treatments were often quite violent, and could mean a day spent indoors for the user. The logic behind them was to drive out bad substances from within the body; once this had been achieved, more specific remedies could be tried.

How to treat... a blocked nose

Some 17th-century cold cures sound quite pleasant. In 1606, for example, Mrs Corlyon recommended keeping an ointment made of lavender flowers and a little grease to treat “diseases of the head proceeding of a cold”. Sufferers were recommended to rub some into “the temples of your head, the noddle, and the nape of your necke and it will helpe you”. If you can find your noddle, you could try the same thing with a menthol rub.

Meanwhile, Anne Brumwich’s household book (c. 1625-700) suggested boiling raisins in a quart of milk, before straining off the liquid and drinking it warm. And in 1642, Jane Jackson’s remedy for the “cold rhume [running] of the nose” involved combining powder of the plant Spikenard and oil of cumin and putting the resulting mixture up your nose, which would apparently also help remove any “thicknesse of hearing”.

The pigeon cure

Is there anything it can't treat? Time-travelling historian Dr Alun Withey investigates.

How to treat... a sore throat

Sore throat remedies often revolved around the use of “gargarisms” (things to gargle with), and other soothing substances. Bridget Hyde’s recipe recommended oil of almonds, stirred with a cinnamon stick and then gently dabbed onto the back of the throat. Another gargle involved a mixture of vinegar, plantain water and rose water.

Sitting with a hot salty brick on your throat might not seem conducive to recovery, but at least it's quick, cheap and easy

If you wanted to try something different (for example, something that wouldn’t require you to eat anything), one late 17th-century cure for pain caused by a cold was to put a brick in the fire until red hot, quench it in water, “pour as much salt on it as it will drink up” then wrap it in a double cloth before laying it to the sore place. Sitting with a hot salty brick on your throat might not seem conducive to recovery, but at least it was quick, cheap and easy!

How to treat... a cough

Coughs attracted lots of remedies using things like wine, honey and sugar, as well as various plant products including celery, aniseed, liquorice and violet seeds. Just like today’s cough remedies, these cures were split into different types of cough, such as the “dry cough”, “a cough that has phlegme” or a “cough of the lungs”. One cough remedy in a 16th-century collection also offered the sufferer advice about how to avoid the dangers of sudden changes of temperature (including not going from a warm fire to a cold bed).

How to treat... itchy eyes

Take a deep breath. In the mid 17th century, the remedy book of Arthur Corbett suggested taking a quantity of snails “that live in walls and hollow trees”, putting them in a vial over a fire and collecting the liquid that dropped out. Once a bit of sugar and some capers had been added, the liquid was ready to drop into the eyes.

It goes without saying that all of the remedies mentioned in this article are not supported by modern medical science, and you shouldn’t try any of them at home. But, as you cough, sneeze, splutter and scratch your way through the summer, at least you can console yourself that your condition is:

a) temporary
b) unlikely to involve putrefaction OR mortification, and
c) treatable by things that are not hot bricks or snails

Dr Alun Withey is an expert on the history of medicine and the body and a regular contributor to Essential Classics' Time Travellers podcast. Each episode sees an intrepid band of time-travelling correspondents shed light on history’s quirkiest forgotten corners. For more information and to subscribe, search for “Time Travellers” wherever you get your podcasts.