Image of a child with chicken pox via The CDC. This is not a picture of Leslie with the chicken pox, she sincerely hopes there are none.

Image of a child with chicken pox via The CDC. This is not a picture of Leslie with the chicken pox, she sincerely hopes there are none.

When I was 10 or 11 I caught the chicken pox from a family member. After age two, the severity of the chicken pox increases with the age of the person infected, so as a tween I was at the older end of the spectrum. And I had them HORRIBLY. I remember the pustules, blisters and ulcers being Under my eyelids, down my throat, in my mouth, it hurt to lay down, it hurt to sit, it hurt to stand, really existing hurt for a solid two weeks.  For what it’s worth I still carry the physical scars of the illness today and recently had to explain to my toddler what they were when he noticed them.

Jumping back 20 years ago I remember my mother (at her wit’s end from what I’m sure was an exhausting experience caring for me) called her mother and asked for advice on how to control my itching. Because, again, the sores were everywhere and I was in agony. My grandmother suggested a cool bath in oatmeal and baking soda. To this day I remember the feeling of getting into that bath. The relief! The cool water, the oatmeal, the baking soda it felt so much better.

Flash forward some 20 odd years later, I’m now a mother myself, to a son that had a nasty diaper rash. The kind of diaper rash that makes you wince when you look at it, and he was understandably not happy about it. As he cried in discomfort, almost instinctively I grabbed some raw oats and baking soda from the pantry, tossed them in a cool bath, and plunked him in. Shortly after, he calmed down and said, “it feels bedder mommy.”

Relieved that the remedy had worked for now a third generation, I had to wonder what made it work, and what other therapeutic treatments passed down through the generations actually do work.

To be clear, there’s no such thing as a magic cure – the treatments discussed below are just that: treatments. We’re talking about things that can alleviate symptoms, because magic cures? Well, those don’t exist, much as we’d like to hope. Also, before you try any of these treatments make sure you talk to your doctor first. As Julia and I say, don’t take medical advice from strangers on the internet, including us. Talk to your doctor.


My grandmother was right; oatmeal actually does soothe inflamed skin, but you need to use it in a specific way. It’s not enough just to toss some oats in the bath and expect your eczema to clear up. You can either purchase colloidal oatmeal (essentially finely ground oatmeal), make your own colloidal oatmeal at home by tossing the oats into a food processor, or strain regular oats (either using a strainer, sachet or sock) in the bath. What you want is for the bath water to turn milky beige, it’s that milky substance that will coat your skin soothing any dry or inflamed bits. If it looks like you’re sitting in a bath of watered-down oatmeal from mealtime, that would be not the way to use it.

Oatmeal naturally retains water and when that milky substance I mentioned coats your skin, it brings some water in with it. Most importantly oatmeal is high in Saponins (a mild natural cleanser) and avenanthramides, natural antihistimines which reduce inflammation.

Baking Soda:
Ah yes baking soda, AKA sodium bicarbonate. We all have a box or two of this laying around our houses likely either for cooking, deodorizing, but baking soda has been a go-to for relief for rashes, burns and insect bites for generations.  Here’s the really interesting thing I discovered while researching this post: nobody seems to know why it works.  Coming up empty on journal searches, I even turned to a PhD analytical chemist to ask if he knew why baking soda soothed minor dermatological irritations and even he shrugged.  His best guess is that it has to do with the alkalinity of baking soda having a neutralizing effect on the acidity of the irritation.  The American Academy of Dermatology recommends using it as a paste or an additive in a bath to soothe poison ivy and bee stings, but apparently no one knows how or why it works.

Cranberries + Cranberry Juice:
If you’ve ever had a urinary tract infection (UTI) you know how painful and uncomfortable they are and cranberry juice is often cited as an at-home remedy for the dreaded UTI. It looks like there is some science behind using cranberries and cranberry juice to help alleviate the urgent and painful symptoms of a UTI while you wait for the antibiotics to start working, but in terms of curing UTIs, it seems cranberries don’t live up to the hype. But here’s where it gets interesting: if you suffer from recurrent UTIs, it looks like there is some evidence to support that cranberries and cranberry juice can help prevent them. The mechanism for how this happens isn’t quite clear, but researchers are working on discovering the relationship between cranberries and UTI prevention.

 Olive + Flaxseed Oil:
If you’re feeling a little constipated and struggling to go, it turns out that a table spoon of olive oil or flaxseed oil can help get things moving again, and quickly, especially if you don’t want to turn to stool softeners or laxatives. Flaxseed oil has a laxative effect, helping your digestive tract along, whereas olive oil, well, it “greases the way” for your stool on it’s way through your digestive tract. Just like with oatmeal and baking soda, using olive or flaxseed oil only offers temporary relief. If you’re regularly constipated, you need to talk to your doctor.

Prunes and Prune Juice:
Just about everyone’s grandmother had (or has) a bottle of prune juice in the fridge and usually it’s expired. As a kid I remember seeing this in both sets of grandparents’ houses and wondering “why would anyone ever drink this stuff?!” It turns out my grandparents were on to something. If you’re constipated (again with the poop) prunes and prune juice can not only soften stool but help your stool on it’s way out of your GI tract, making it easier to go. Prunes (aka, dried plums) are high in fiber, something your GI tract relies on to stay regular. Again, just like olive and flaxseed oil, prunes and prune juice will only temporarily relieve mild to moderate constipation.

So there you have it, just a few of the at-home treatments your grandmother was probably right about. If you’ve noticed, none of them are cures, but simply relieve symptoms or offer temporary relief for minor issues. As always, you should consult with a licensed health care provider before trying any home remedy your grandmother has recommended, or have found online (including from us)!

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Categories: Science 101 + Mythbusting