Tag Archives: cold remedy

El Vaporu Magico – The Magical VapoRub

Informant: My informant is my Mexican mom, who grew up in Puebla, Mexico. While she stayed with her mom for about 16 years, she learned many remedies to keep herself away from developing colds, and flu, and even erase bruises. My mom stated that the reason why she turns towards magical Vicks/mentolato is that she has a stronger belief in home remedies than in actual prescribed medicine. 

Context:  This conversation occurred when I asked my mom why she always brought extra Vaporu, when we already had some at home. 

Main Text: Cuando yo crecí mi mama siempre me dijo que cuando me sintiera mal que siempre tuviera un vaporub a la mano. Ella siempre me decía que esto era mágico y de lo mejor porque siempre ayudaba a mi mama con sus migrañas, moretones, y cuando tenía síntomas de algún resfriado. Lo que hacía mi mamá específicamente es que nos ponía un chingo de vapor en mis pies y me ponía calcetines. Y luego me ponía detrás de la espalda y enfrente del pecho. Para mantenerlo caliente entre medio de mi ropa me ponía papel. Al final antes que nos acostáramos a dormir nos ponía un poco alrededor de la nariz para que pudiéramos respirar mejor. Sabes, mi mama no solo me enseño a usar esto para resfriados pero también para la piel y infecciones. Si te pones poquito de esto en tu barro es más que seguro que se te quite al otro dia, Por ultimo, si te duele el oído lo que tienes que haces es agarrar un algodón, ponerle un poco de vaporub y ponerlo en oído.” 

Translation: “Growing up my mom always told me that when I felt bad I should always have a vaporubby my side.. She always told me that this was magical and the best because it always helped my mom with her migraines, bruises, and when she had cold symptoms. What my mom did specifically is she put a lot of  thi product on the sole of my feet and with socks on me. And then she would put some behind my back and in front of myst chest. To keep the warmth, my mom would put paper between my clothes. In the end, before we went to sleep, she put a little around our noses so that we could breathe better. You know, my mom taught me not only to use this for colds but also for the skin and infections. If you put a little of this on your pimples, it is more than certain that it would go away the next day. Finally, another use was for infection. If your ear hurts, what you had  have to do was take a cotton ball, put a little VapoRub on it and put it in your ear.”

Analysis: It is interesting how this product, which was not initially created to be used for bruises, nor for infection has become a huge part of the Mexican culture. I believe it just showcases, how my mom and many other who use this product have become accustomed to use it and has become integrated so much into their health lifestyles. So much to the point that many rather than going to a doctor, now rely on VapoRub. I for one have no problem in relying in folk medicine, because I also have the belief that VapoRub fixes almost all. I myself, coming from a low-income family, rely on this product so much. Why? Because when a member gets sick, we pull out the VapoRub. VapoRub is efficient, cheap and lifesaver for many low-income families.

Vicks as a Cold Remedy

Background information: My mom is a second-generation Filipino-American, meaning she was born here in the US. Her parents immigrated from the Philippines when they were both relatively young, and my mom’s family grew up with a lot of relatives in San Francisco, CA. 

Mom: When you guys were young and you would get sick, I always made sure to put Vicks on your chest and back. You take a lot of Vicks and cover your chest and back with a layer of it and then put face cloths over it. It seals it and it helps you work through congestion and breathing. It clears out your sinuses so it gets easier to breathe. And then you also put Vicks on your feet and put socks over it.

Me: Why on your feet?

Mom: It helps to…suck the sickness out from your feet. The socks help seal it too.

Me: Why did you do this for us?

Mom: My mom always did it for us, and I know my grandma did too. I remember being sick and my grandma seeing me and asking my mom “Did you do this? Did you do that?” always talking about using enough Vicks on us (laughs). I think a lot of Filipino moms know about this one. Your lola knows about it too.

This medical practice is definitely something very specific to Filipino families, as I remember asking my friends if they knew about putting Vicks on their feet, and very rarely did people know what I was talking about. As a child, even though it was uncomfortable, I knew that Vicks would help me get well again because my mom and grandma felt so strongly about doing it as soon as I showed any signs of having a cold. Despite this being a practice of folklore that families pass down on their own, it feels like an “official” medical practice just because I’m so used to doing it.

“Cạo Gió”: Vietnamese Cold Remedy

Main Piece:

A: Cạo gió là hồi xưa ở Quê, không có biết là– đi bác sĩ, chừng nào nguời ta bị cảm, hay là bị bịnh chút chút… mệt mỏi, chừng thay nhức mỏi, thì lúc đó cạo gió, ngời ta feel better. Nguời ta cảm thấy khỏe lên, đỡ lên. Giống như cào gió cho cái chất dộc ra ngaòi. Cái hơi dộc trong mình nó ra ngaòi. 

  • “Cạo gió” = traditional Vietnamese practice of bruising the skin with some sort of round or hard object by scraping it on the body with medium pressure.
  • “Cạo gió is back then at Quê (city in southern Vietnam), we didn’t know– when someone goes to the doctor, when they have a cold, or when they’re a little sick… tired and sore, when your body is sore and aching, then that’s when you do cạo gió, the person will feel better. People experience that they get better, feel better. It’s like you do cạo gió to remove the harmful properties out of your body. The harmful elements in your body go out.”

Me: How do you do cạo gió?

A: Just xức dầu lên, dầu nóng lên, xong rồi dùng cái penny, cào nó tôi.

  • “Just apply menthol oil on your body, warm menthol oil, then get a penny, and just scrape it.”

Me: Do you have to do a specific shape?

A: (emphatically) Yeah. (gesturing) cào hai đường thẩng xuống, rồi hai bên– cào lên hai bên hông. Xong. Rồi xủc dầu lên. 

  • “Yeah. scrape two vertical lanes down the spine, then on two sides– scrape either side of the lanes. Done. Then apply more menthol oil.”


My mother is the one telling me this story. She first learned about this practice through her great-grandmother, who performed this on her father and her uncles when they were sick, back when she was a child in Vietnam. Since then, she has performed this on my sibling and me, as well as my father. She believes this to work, and also scrapes her shoulders when they feel sore.


This is a transcript of our live conversation. My mother was in the process of making dinner (which was phở: Vietnamese rice noodle dish in beef broth) when I asked her about this practice. It has been on my mind since the first day of the lecture when we discussed folk methods of curing colds.


This practice of scraping the back with menthol oil and a penny is something my mother has done for my sibling and me, and my father whenever we were sick. She mostly did this when my sibling and I were much younger, and I remember not understanding then, what the purpose of this practice was or how it helped. Now, it could be related to a more mainstream practice of cupping, which involves the same method of bruising the body to remove toxins. While this technique is folk medicine and folk practice, it can also be thought of as homeopathic magic. My mother specifically describes how the paths being scraped into the body mimic the body’s toxins’ passageway out of the body.

Cold Remedies – Whiskey & Honey Milk


This piece is collected in a casual interview setting around a cup of coffee. My informant (BA) was born in Lille, France, and moved to California in 2002 with her husband for their jobs at Caltech. She has a Master in Human Resources and Detection of High Potentials, is a mother of two teenage girls, loves to garden and go on hikes, and is overall a very energetic and happy woman. 

Main Piece:

The following is transcribed from a conversation between the informant (BA) and interviewer.

Interviewer: How do you treat a sore throat?

BA: So, there are two ways. There’s the version a little more aggressive.  You take a chug of whiskey, you gurgle it around, you remove all the bacteria, and its supposed to leave [the bacteria and sore throat]. And the grandma remedy, which I love, and can’t do any har, is that you take a, a, a bowl of hot milk, actually more warm, you put two teaspoons of honey, you turn, you mix, and you drink it. That’ll take care of your sore throat.

Interviewer: Where did you learn these remedies? 

BA: My grandmother would make me drink the milk and my dad, who used the more aggressive method, made me drink whiskey. I liked the grandma version better *laughs* but I made my girls try both when they were little! 


Growing up, the whiskey method was not my favorite either, but my parents and neighbors, who we are very close to, insisted I try it if medicine or hot milk and honey didn’t do the trick. The hot milk and honey is a remedy I use all the time, but I also use it to destress when I’m feeling anxious, not only for sore throats. Although I don’t think it cures a cold, it does help with the symptoms. 

Garlic and milk to cure a cold

The informant is my mother, who is originally from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where she grew up with her eight sisters. When she was visiting from Washington, D.C. where we currently live, I asked her and my aunts how they used to cure colds when they lived in Ethiopia. She shared this interesting anecdote with me.

Note: The initials NG denote the informant, while A refers to me, the interviewer.


NG: When I was younger, some people used netch shinkourt ena whetet [garlic and milk].

A: woah, really? why? isn’t milk bad for you when you have a cold?

NG: I don’t know. Maybe, actually.

A: Did it ever actually work?

NG: [laughs] I don’t think so.

A: So why do you think people do it?

NG: I don’t know! It’s, you know, it’s nice to feel like you’re doing something to help. [laughs]


I thought this was a funny example of the fact that some beliefs are unfounded, but are performed simply because they are tradition, or because the belief that the remedy will work is enough for those who perform it. Science has actually proven that there is no actual way to cure a cold, which means that in this way, every cold remedy will work, because the cold will go away by itself in a few days and you can attribute this to whatever remedy you used. I also thought it related to the fact that we like to feel some amount of control when we’re in a situation in which nothing can be done, because although we know there is no way to cure a cold, we all have cold remedies and things we do to try and “cure” ourselves.