Throat swabs and other potentially fatal folk remedies


I’ve only had strep throat once in my life but once was enough. I really really hated how much it really really hurt. Now when I start to feel like I’m getting a smidge of a sore throat, I start swallowing every folk remedy  in our medicine cabinet to ward it off.  I ingest handfuls of echinacea, zinc, vitamin C, Zicam, airborne, oscillococcinum, vitamin D, etc.

Usually, I can actually keep the bad nasties at bay. But sometimes they break through my organic barrier and I suffer. This week is one of those times. My throat is very sore and feels swollen and all the ice cream in our freezer is not enough to numb my pain.

So that got me to thinking about the folk remedies our family used when I was a kid. I remember we used to treat sore throats with a homemade throat swab. Let me walk you through it:  one of us would go out to the wood pile and break a slice off a stick of wood, say about 1/2 an inch in diameter, maybe a foot long or so. Then we would try to remove the worst of the splinters and wrap a length of cotton around and around one end. Then we would dip the cotton into a bottle of red liquid and one of our parents would stick it down our throats and move it around and around and up and down to swab the parts that hurt.

Yes, it was a primitive procedure. Did it work? Usually. If it didn’t, the procedure would be repeated. If I were a person who verbized words, I might say it highly  incented healing.


This is what our bottle of mercurichrome looked like

But what was the red dipping stuff, anyway? One red medicine I remember was mercurichrome. I haven’t seen it around in a long time, so I got to wondering why.  (Images are from worthopedia, thank you very much!)

Here’s what I found at Wise Geek:
“There are two issues with Mercurochrome™ and other merbromin products. The first is that they contain mercury, a metal which is known to be poisonous. Although no one has definitively linked Mercurochrome™ to mercury poisoning, presumably because the metal is only present in trace amounts, many people prefer to err on the side of caution when it comes to mercury. The FDA originally grandfathered the drug in, and later decided that it should be banned until additional research could prove that it was safe for use.”

Holy crap. So that’s why I’m always in retrograde?!?

The other red medicine I remember was Methiolate. Wonder what it contains? Meth???? A little due diligence revealed I was misspelling it. It’s actually Merthiolate. Featuring… yes, once again, our old friend mercury.


And our bottle of Merthiolate

Here’s what wikipedia says about it:
“Thimerosal (Merthiolate) is an ethylmercury-containing pharmaceutical compound that is 49.55% mercury and that was developed in 1927. Thimerosal has been marketed as an antimicrobial agent in a range of products, including topical antiseptic solutions and antiseptic ointments for treating cuts, nasal sprays, eye solutions, vaginal spermicides, diaper rash treatments, and perhaps most importantly as a preservative in vaccines and other injectable biological products, including Rho(D)-immune globulin preparations, despite evidence, dating to the early 1930s, indicating Thimerosal to be potentially hazardous to humans and ineffective as an antimicrobial agent. Despite this, Thimerosal was not scrutinized as part of U.S. pharmaceutical products until the 1980s, when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration finally recognized its demonstrated ineffectiveness and toxicity in topical pharmaceutical products, and began to eliminate it from these. Ironically, while Thimerosal was being eliminated from topicals, it was becoming more and more ubiquitous in the recommended immunization schedule for infants and pregnant women. Furthermore, Thimerosal continues to be administered, as part of mandated immunizations and other pharmaceutical products, in the United States and globally. The ubiquitous and largely unchecked place of Thimerosal in pharmaceuticals, therefore, represents a medical crisis.”

WTF!?!  Just shake me down, stick me under your tongue for one minute and read me!!!!!!

bottle of iodine

The iodine bottle, prominently featuring skull and crossbones

I also remember a small brown bottle of iodine, we only rarely pulled it out, saving it for the potentially gangrenous ailments and I remember being quite afraid of it because of the skull and crossbones on it. I couldn’t figure out how one, even grownups, would know how much of something so blatantly poisonous would be okay to use.

But as Butch Cassidy might have said, “Are you crazy? The mercury will probably kill you.”


There is actually one common remedy from my childhood that seems not to be banned yet:  campho-phenique. My father carried that little distinctively green grass bottle with the yellow cap everywhere and applied it to anything anyplace on one’s body, external or inside any orifice whatsoever, for any reason at all, treating it basically as a universal cure-all wonder drug. He was not a church going man but he basically worshipped at the altar of camphophenique*.

Have a zit? Put on some camphopehique? A bug bite? Slap on some camphophenique. A cold sore? Camphopenique. Burn your hand? Apply camphophenique. An abrasion or wound of any kind? Better protect it with camphophenique. A boil? Camphophenique. Wart? Campho. A cold? Sinus infection? A little campho inside the nostril. Headache? Campho. And so on. I teased him about it until I realized I had adopted his approach within my own family and used it just the other day.

The magical little green bottle with the yellow label and lid

OMFG!! I just visited the interwebs and learned he was not alone. Someone has made a web page as “an ode to campho-phenique!!!”  In another place it’s referred to as a “hillbilly remedy.”

I should have known.

*Campho-phenique is an antiseptic, local anaesthetic, germicide and parasiticide. It is also non-irritant, non-poisonous, insoluble in water or glycerine, does not discolor or stain, and possesses an agreeable odor and taste. It prevents suppuration in fresh wounds, controls it in wounds in all stages, and as a local anaesthetic obtunds pain. It is claimed that campho-phenique, pure, is equal to 1 to 85 of bichloride of mercury which is six times as strong as it can be used even on the unbroken skin, and about 25 times as strong as is considered safe on cut surfaces. Campho-phenique is altogether free from toxic or caustic properties, and is one of the safest of germicides; it also maintains an unchanged integrity, and is well adapted to a large proportion of pathological dental cases. It should never be combined with water or glycerin, but it will mix in all proportions with alcohol, ether, chloroform, and all fatty substances. Employed as an antiseptic, it penetrates the tissues as rapidly as carbolic acid, and also slightly hardens them.

19 responses

  1. hahaha … I remember the campho the best, seems like he used it the most for cold sores … seems like the smaller we were, the bigger the stick… maybe it just seemed that way … the other one I remember alot was Foille – used for the worst of the burns … thanks for kindling those memories of years past …

    • I remember campho as well, and you reminded me of the commercial where the little girl puts her finger on the curling iron, and her mom put campho on it. Then the mom goes on talking about all the things she uses it for? cold sores, bug bites,cuts burns scrape setc. Anytime something came up, dad would always tell us to get the campho, cause it cured what ailed ya! Now this next part will sound risky, but we were snowed in one time and I got so sick that my throat was nearly closed up, looking back now it was strep. Dad took a long stick, secured a cotton ball with a rubber band and swapped my throat with mercurichrome. The relief was instaneous! My throat was 50% better within the next two hours.

  2. I thought we were the only ones who did the kindling-stick throat-swab thing. My parents used Benzoine – which you will also find on the list of “if it don’t kill you. . .” old time cures. Mecuricrome, Merthiolate, Campho-phenique and Vicks: those were the cure-alls in the medicine chest. Iodine was used on livestock ( at my house, anyway.) Bag Balm was for everyone, livestock included.

    • That is so cool! Anyone I have ever spoken to about the throat swab looks at me like there is spinach in my teeth.

    • My parents used to apply either Merthiolate or Mercurochrome to stop me from sucking my thumb. I can’t remember which one it was. It was red. It burned my mouth and tasted nasty. Does anyone have an idea which?

    • We called Bag Balm “Wool Fat Salve”. We also used the Mercurochrome on a stick for sores in the mouth, also Merthiolate on scrapes and Campho-Phenique for cold sores on the outside of the mouth. We were told to start blowing before they even put the red stuff on. And the mouth sores had to be completely dry first so they would blow in our mouths.

  3. I have been trying to find info on a throat swab used in the fifties called Fusinol. Super pain killer for a sore throat. Anyone heard of it???

  4. I actually just used iodine on my throat Christmas morning because my tonsils were swollen. My mom used to use it on me back on the farm. I was a sickly child with tonsilitis just about every couple months. Never got them out though. Grown up now I still use it though not nearly as often since I don’t get that sick anymore. Campho was used too…maybe I should just switch to Campho only. 🙂

  5. I use Lugol’s solution (the nasty brown throat swab that contains iodine) on my sore throats. Works well, but I’m looking to replace it with a less toxic, more effective Povidone-Iodine (aka Betadine)

  6. In my family merthiolate, and mercurochrome, were used on scrapes from falling down and it stung when applied. For kids I think it felt worst then the wound. Camphophenique had some use, but don’t remember what for. Vicks and metholatum were rubbed on the chest when we had a cold. We never experienced throat swabbing, was it past down from the Deatherage side?

    Grandma was into herbs, but kerosene was something she would talk about being used for certain things, as well as bacon rind to draw out a splinter, though don’t recall that being used on me. She did keep horehound candy on hand for coughs and pink peppermint candies that she would pass out to us children in church. Neither one are to easy to find now days.

  7. This article and comments just made my day! I laughed out loud for real!! Especially about the camphophenique!! My daddy used all of these remedies plus Epson salts. Oh Mercy…I had a bicycle wreck while going bare footed and with out a helment and ripped off a toe nail…came home with my poor bleeding toe (not a scratch on my head) and daddy boiled up some water and put the Epson Salts in it. Oh the torture of it all!! I had to put my foot in that scalding water as a cure or torture for my ripped off toenail and forced to leave it that solution until the water was no longer hot (I think Daddy kept adding hot water for a while). Oh well as an old day saying goes “what doesn’t kill you can’t hurt you???” I thought at the time I might die but I didn’t and I have a toe nail too!!

    • OMG! That sounds rather harsh! Yes, I suppose all these things could be considered tests to weed out the weaker ones among us and make the species stronger! Thanks for the comment. It’s oddly comforting to know others suffered these remedies! 🙂

  8. Seems like I’m reading my life growing up here! I was born in 62, & never was our family’s nor my grandma’s med. chest not equipped w/ mercurochrome. And, yes, I too, had the twig from the yard, tipped w/ cotton, dipped in mercur. & swabbed at the back of my throat. But I have to say, I do vividly recall it brought instant relief, but tasted very bitter. I certainly pray that those of it who grew up w/ the profuse use of it, do not incur some weird, delayed mercury reaction/disease some day. 🙂

  9. oh, what great memories and I haven’t had such a belly laugh in such a long time. I too have a sore throat and was thinking about that old red stuff and swabing my throat…..LOL just not too sure HA!!! You all have a great evening. Effie Rodriguez West VIrginia

  10. Anonymous on July 16, 2014 at 2:55 pm said:
    It’s just not a memory, it’s reality. I’m from a small town and we didn’t go to the doctor for anything short of dying. I fume every time I open that bottle of merthiolate! It’s a clear liquid in the same kind of bottle. Removing the mercury has made it useless. I had bad tonsils my whole childhood. I am now 73 and I had my throat mopped so much I think it killed my tonsils. I still have them and all my organs for that matter! It didn’t kill me! I reach for that bottle when I have small cuts, etc. It doesn’t work at all now. The good ole’ days.

  11. Go to Wikipedia and read the story of Martha Rendell, I do a lot of ancestry work, this came up when working on my half brother and half sisters Father he was a Rendell.
    The story give a new light to swabbing the throat with mercurochrome, my mother did to me ALL the time, as one of you said I also had tonsillitis every three to four weeks. up until I was about 25 years old and a Dr. gave me two shots a week for three weeks to kill the bacteria, I no I don’t recall having tonsillitis since then.
    As a child I suffered from migraine headaches and even went completely blind at 14 years old, oddly it only lasted about three days my vision came back, who knows?
    Read the story it is quite interesting.