The first signs of common ailments such as a cold, headache, or tummy trouble may have you sooner playing doctor rather than going to see one. It’s fast, simple, cheap, and kind of fun to fix your own flare ups without the help of a pricey, too busy, and often disengaged doctor who generally has only 13 to 16 minutes for you, according to the new Medscape Physician Compensation Report 2016.
“It’s a good thing that people want to take an active role in their health,” says Philip Hagen, M.D., vice chair of the division of preventive medicine at the Mayo Clinic. While a search for “home remedies” may garner more than 21 million results for everything from rubbing your feet with onions and garlic for cold and flu symptoms to countless elixirs using apple cider vinegar to aid digestion, there are certain situations you should leave up to the pros.
“If you feel really horrible, have a fever, or your symptom is the outcome of something traumatic like a car accident, use common sense and go to the doctor,” Hagen says. Same goes if you have a diagnosed condition or disease, such as diabetes or cancer. See your physician before you try anything yourself.
Another concern with home remedies is that you may not be treating the correct problem, warns Mott Blair, M.D., a family physician in Wallace, North Carolina, and member of the board of directors of the American Academy of Family Physicians. “Sometimes, these remedies only treat a symptom that turns into something worse. But if you saw a doctor earlier, this could have been treated and prevented,” he says. Also, some strange-sounding remedies may prove unhealthy or potentially dangerous in the long run. Below are a few popular home remedies that doctors would like you to avoid and what to do instead.
HOME REMEDY #1: Apple cider vinegar (ACV) for a sore throat
The claim: Gargling with ACV or drinking it mixed with hot water (and often honey) soothes your throat because the acid in the vinegar kills bacteria.
Why doctors don’t buy it: “I’d consider apple cider vinegar to be too strong,” Hagen says. “It’s a fairly irritating substance, and there are other, gentler approaches.”
A better alternative: Both Hagen and Blair agree that gargling salt water is a smarter, non-irritating solution. Mix 1/2 teaspoon salt in a glass of warm water and gargle with that to alleviate your scratchy throat.
HOME REMEDY #2: Cranberry juice for a urinary tract infection (UTI)
The claim: The proanthocyanidins (PACs) in cranberries keep bacteria from binding to the walls of the bladder, preventing infection.
Why doctors don’t buy it: A review of 14 studies found little evidence to support that cranberry juice prevents UTIs. Plus, once you start experiencing the symptoms of a UTI—burning, fever, and/or frequent urination—you probably have an infection, Blair says. “If you don’t see a doctor to get medication, you risk having the infection travel up into your kidneys, which can lead to a kidney infection.”
A better alternative: Don’t wait. See your doctor asap to get antibiotics, Blair says.
HOME REMEDY #3: Using yogurt internally for a yeast infection
The claim: Dip a tampon in yogurt and leave it in for four hours or up to overnight. The good bacteria in the yogurt will kill the yeast and encourage more good bacteria to grow. Some also report that the cold yogurt is soothing.
Why doctors don’t buy it: Any kind of douching can change the pH in your vagina, which is usually asking for an infection.
A better alternative: Feel free to use yogurt as intended and eat it, or take a probiotic supplement if you want the benefits of good bacteria. But if you have a yeast infection, you should always see your doctor, Hagen says.
HOME REMEDY #4: Olive oil for ear pain
The claim: Polyphenols in olive oil are antibacterial and antiviral, and they can help decrease inflammation caused by an ear infection.
Why doctors don’t buy it: “When your ear is infected, oftentimes the middle ear swells up, casing pressure on the ear drum. Oil might reduce that pressure and the pain, but you’re treating the symptoms, not the problem—the infection,” Blair says.
A better alternative: For ear pain, try OTC drops as long as you don’t have a fever, Hagen recommends. If you do have a fever or there’s any drainage or change in hearing, see your doctor.
HOME REMEDY #5: Whiskey and honey for a cough
The claim: A hot toddy will quiet your hacking by relieving congestion and soothing your throat.
Why doctors don’t buy it: “There’s always the risk of interaction if you combine alcohol and OTC or prescription drugs,” Blair says. And since many cough suppressants and pain relievers already contain alcohol or other sedatives, the cumulative effect could be dangerous.
A better alternative: Mix that honey with tea if you want a warm drink on your throat.
HOME REMEDY #6: Ginger ale for an upset stomach
The claim: Studies show that ginger is a safe and effective treatment for nausea and vomiting. Some people claim that the bubbles help, too.
Why doctors don’t buy it: Ginger ale typically contains “natural flavors,” which means it’s not clear if there’s any actual ginger in there. What is clear in most ginger ales is high fructose corn syrup—26 to 35 grams of sugars in a can, depending on your brand preferences. Plus, the carbonation may make bloating and gas worse, according to the Mayo Clinic.
A better alternative: Ginger tea. It gives you all the benefits of the root without the unnecessary calories and sugar.
HOME REMEDY #7: Hair of the dog
The claim: Drinking more alcohol will alleviate a hangover.
Why doctors don’t buy it: You’re only delaying the pain.
A better alternative: Rest, drink plenty of fluids to rehydrate, and take painkiller for your headache, Hagen says. And forget what you’ve heard about sweating out a hangover too: “You feel lousy in part because you put your body through the ringer. So doing something heavy like exercise only adds insult to injury,” Hagen adds.