With detox fads on the rise, here’s a friendly reminder of what a “toxin” actually is
– Old-timey medicine was kind of terrifying.
– Some celebrities have asserted that there’s a method to the old madness.
– Scientists would like to remind us that we stopped using those methods for a reason.
For most common ailments, pharmacologists have found cures and suppressants that do the least amount of damage while providing the most benefits. That means we’ve abandoned bloodletting in favor of things like bed rest and Nyquil, and instead of knocking someone out with an ether-soaked rag, we visit an anesthesiologist or use novocaine.
Despite the advances of medicine over the past several centuries, some individuals prefer taking a more “traditional” approach to curing what ails them, often with detrimental consequences. Disregarding what western medicine has to say, people find that the risk of death is just the shock a system needs to feel better.
Arsenic shots and antidote chasers
As recently as the early 1900s, people ingested all sorts of nasty things with the hopes of feeling better. At the time, treatments like turpentine, castor oil, and arsenic were common remedies for everyday issues like the common cold. The People’s Home Library, a weighty text from 1911 that includes a certified home medical guide, also features an extensive antidote section. Arsenic was used to treat everything from cancer and syphilis to skin lesions and ulcers. While it was surprisingly effective at killing cancer cells, arsenic was also pretty good at taking the patient with it. As a result, doctors at the time were reasonably well-versed in creating antidote cocktails.
Other treatments at the time were similarly effective and less lethal when used correctly, but that didn’t mean they were any less dangerous. In some parts of the world and even in some less-developed areas of the United States, turpentine and castor oil remedies remain fairly commonplace, often perpetuated by older generations. Supposedly, when taken at the first signs of a cold or flu, they’d stop the disease in its tracks. If you look up either remedy on Google nowadays, the primary peddlers of these remedies are holistic medicine sites and naturopathic shops. With so much anecdotal evidence to back the treatments and celebrities turning to them as cures in 2019, how bad can they be?
Side effects include: Death
As we mentioned earlier, modern medicine has evolved to find the path of least resistance to a desirable outcome. Thanks to better care, healthier diets, and overall improved living conditions since the turn of the last century, contracting a cold or the flu usually doesn’t prove fatal. Most families have their folk remedies for coughs, sore throats, or stomach aches, and most of these concoctions involve some combination of citrus, honey, and possibly alcohol. Except for alcohol, you’d be hard-pressed to do yourself in with any of those ingredients. There’s even some science to back the soothing and antiseptic properties of cocktails based around those three ingredients. The use of turpentine, which is typically purchased for use as a paint thinner, stands on far shakier ground when it comes to kicking a cold. Castor oil, while it does have medical applications, is never going to be used by a real doctor as a tincture to cure a cold or soothe a cough.
Let’s say you do decide to try healing things the old-fashioned way. What could go wrong? As far as you can tell, you’ve got everything to gain and very little to lose, save for some unsavory burps and unpleasant aftertastes. Let’s start with turpentine. Made from highly-distilled pine resin, turpentine was once used to cure everything from depression to rheumatism. In the American South, it was commonly used to treat intestinal parasites as well, but at what cost?
First and foremost, it’s a powerful irritant to the eyes, skin, and nose. Excessive consumption can cause kidney and heart damage, and inhalation can lead to severe pneumonia and a whited-out lung. Castor oil is also a skin irritant and a vicious laxative. It has been known to cause severe complications if taken during pregnancy. Finally, given the toxicity of both “remedies,” if taken in large enough doses, they can easily prove fatal. Play it safe: Stick to your cough drops and ride out the seasonal sniffles with the rest of us.
A deeper dive — Related reading from the 101:
- 38 plants and animals you should never touch | Science 101
Castor beans aren’t the only things you ought to steer clear of.
- These 30 outrageous vintage hygiene practices are actually real | Science 101
Drinking poison wasn’t the weirdest thing our great grandparents did in the name of health and hygiene.
- Can you accidentally make deadly mustard gas with common cleaning products? | Science 101
You can, and it’s surprisingly easy. Don’t be caught unaware. Or, you know, dead.