Tag Archives: iodine

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.