Harvard Medical School embraces evidence-based medicine — treatments that have been shown to be effective through high-quality studies called randomized controlled clinical trials. So it's always a little surprising when a Harvard doctor proposes a home remedy, as Dr. James P. Ioli did in an interview about toenail fungus. Dr. Ioli, who is chief of the podiatry service at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women's Hospital, suggested that daily applications of Vicks VapoRub might be at least as effective as most of the topical treatments for toenail fungus that are available by prescription or over the counter.
Toenail fungus is representative of the type of condition that may benefit from home remedies. It isn't usually serious and there are no sure cures for it that don't have significant side effects. Vicks is also representative of the type of home remedy that isn't likely to be harmful — a product we know well and have used safely for other purposes.
Why try home remedies?
Home remedies are inexpensive. Even though prescription drugs and over-the-counter products may be available for some conditions, home remedies may also be effective at a fraction of the cost. For example, the retail price of a year's supply of the medication for toenail fungus called efinaconazole (Jublia) is several thousand dollars, compared with $24 for Vicks VapoRub.
Home remedies are also readily available when you need them. You may already have them in your kitchen cabinet or on your bathroom shelves. If not, they're likely to be as close as the nearest supermarket.
The evidence supporting some home remedies
Hundreds of testimonials for a home remedy on the Internet may provide some assurance that it may help and probably won't hurt you, but evidence from a well-conducted scientific study is far preferable. For example, a small study published in the Journal of the American Board of Family Physicians in 2011 demonstrated that Vicks can help eliminate toenail fungus. In that report, 15 of 18 volunteers with fungus-infected toenails had significant improvements, and five had complete eradications of the fungus, after daily applications of Vicks for a year. Even the venerable cold therapy chicken soup has undergone scientific scrutiny. A clinical study published in Chest in 1978 demonstrated that drinking chicken soup increased the flow of nasal mucus significantly more than drinking either hot or cold water.
The remedies listed below have been tested in clinical studies that have been published in peer-reviewed medical journals.
What it is
What it can be used to treat
Comparable medical treatment
Cost per use
|Drink steaming hot soup
|Vaporizers, oral decongestants
|$.50 to $1.50 per serving
|High sodium content
|Cover wart with tape. Every few days, remove tape, soak foot, sand wart with emery board, and replace tape.
|Lasers, cauterization, acid therapy
|Less than $.01
|Drink one ounce
|Calcium channel blockers
|High sodium content
|Cover surface of affected nail
|Oral and topical fungicides
|$.06 per day
A few cautions
Seemingly benign home remedies can have dangerous side effects. For example, baking soda dissolved in water, once recommended for relieving indigestion, has sent hundreds of people to the emergency room with electrolyte imbalances. If you're taking any home remedy for an extended period, you may want to check with your doctor to see if there are any risks involved.