Monday, 30 November -0001


The power of old-fashioned remedies, relief for painful eyes on wakening and an over-active bladder

Written by Dr James Le Fanu
James-Le-FanuThe wonders of modern medicine have tended to marginalise the often very effective remedies once readily available from the local chemist. As a student at St Barts London in the 1950s, retired microbiologist Rosalind Maskell was advised by an eminent surgeon that small cracks around the mouth were best treated with Ung. Hydrarg. Ammon. Dil. (dilute ammoniated mercury ointment). When, several years later, one of her children developed such cracks, a local chemist provided a tiny jar of the compound. 'A minute quantity applied for a day or two immediately healed the cracks,' she wrote [in 2002] in the British Medical Journal. When she asked the chemist for a replacement she was told he was no longer allowed to supply it, as mercury in excess can be dangerous. However, he said she was welcome to have his remaining stock. She now provides her friends with small amounts when requested, and 'all are amazed at its efficacy'. As, indeed, she herself is after finding a new use for it. 'I was bothered by a small cut on the skin on my leg, which stubbornly refused to heal and conjured up fears of an incipient ulcer,' she says. 'But twice-daily application brought complete healing within three days.'

Meanwhile, a reader from Oxford has described a similar experience with Rhubarb Comp. Powder (commonly known as Gregory's Powder): 'a typical old-fashioned remedy that tastes absolutely awful but is – or rather was – a wonderful stomach sedative with no side effects.' It has certainly been around for a long time, featuring in The Diary Of A Country Parson, 1758-1802 by James Woodforde. But, despite repeated enquiries, neither the chemist she has consulted, nor its suppliers, appear to know anything about it. Luckily, she still has a small emergency supply, which is almost too valuable to be used. 'I shall have to bequeath it in my will,' she writes.

All, however, is not quite lost. The oldest chemist shop in Britain, Reavley's of Burford –  – can still supply some of these traditional old remedies, including Bengue's Balsam, Zam- Buk and Burgess Lion ointment.

This week's query comes courtesy of a lady from Norfolk, who describes how she wakes with pain in her eyes – usually little more than mild discomfort but intermittently, it is much more intense and the eyeball is tender to touch. Her doctor has prescribed various painkilling drugs but has been unable to diagnose her condition. The only situation of which I am aware that can give rise to this sort of eye pain is where the closed eyelids adhere to the surface of the cornea. On wakening, their sudden opening pulls some of the cells from the surface, resulting in minuscule corneal erosions.

Alternatively, some people sleep with their eyelids partly open, causing the surface of the cornea to dry out, giving a similar effect. The simplest treatment involves applying a thick lubricating ointment to the eyes before retiring. If this does not work, other possibilities include contact lenses and laser treatment.



Bladder control

An over-active bladder (having to pass urine up to 10 times a day) can be improved, in part, by restricting the daily intake of fluid, particularly caffeine, and 'bladder exercises'. Recently, Dr Dudley Robinson of London's King's College Hospital has reviewed in the British Medical Journal the role of medicines such as Oxybutynin, which block the nervous control of the bladder muscle. Regrettably, side effects, including dry mouth, constipation and blurred vision, mean half of those to whom they are prescribed cannot tolerate them. But for those who can, Dr Robinson reports they are 'significantly effective'.



HOME REMEDY: Anti-moth plants

healthMy medicinal garden is at last all planted – it became a huge mud-fest, as I had no option but to get digging on one of the rainiest and windiest days of April. I have to say it was worth it, as it looks rather beautiful – it's a circle divided into quarters with some old bricks I had lying around.

One quarter is reserved for my poisonous plants (more on that another time) and the other three are for a mix of medicinal plants. I have planted quite a few 'anti-bug' plants, all with slightly different uses.

The first two are Artemisia absinthium, or wormwood (left). With its lovely silver foliage, it's beautiful in a border, but I've planted it for its mothrepelling properties, so when my tiny plant has grown I'll let you know how I get on ridding my wardrobe of moths. As its name suggests, taken internally it expels worms – but please don't do this yourself as its oil is a strong poison. Its sister plant Artemisia abrotanum, or southernwood, has green, delicately scented leaves.

It too is a good mothrepellent, and bunches can be hung in the kitchen to deter pesky flies.

Sof McVeigh:

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