Old-Fashioned Remedies That Just Might Work

For many travel-related maladies, there are old-fashioned remedies--home-grown treatments passed on with anecdotal evidence (Uncle Harry was helped by this) as proof of effectiveness. The trick, of course, is deciding whether the treatment is worth trying.

Here's what the experts have to say on a few:

Can covering the ears with a paper cup or a cup filled with a steaming washcloth relieve an earache created by an airplane takeoff or landing?

"I don't see any basis for it, as far as equalizing the pressure," said Dr. George B. Stoneman, an ear-nose-throat specialist at Good Samaritan Hospital, Los Angeles, and associate clinical professor of otolaryngology at USC. "And the moisture would be detrimental."

Can the Vasalva maneuver--in which a person pinches the nostrils with thumb and forefinger and then blows out gently while keeping the mouth shut--help unclog ears aloft?

Definitely, said Stoneman, who warned that travelers with acute sinus or ear infections should not try it. Nor should those who have had recent ear surgery. For others, the maneuver helps equalize the pressure on both sides of the eardrum. "The only time you need to do it is when you are descending," he said. As a plane descends, pressure on the outside of the eardrum increases and pressure behind the drum does not. On ascent, the equalization of pressure behind and in front of the eardrum usually happens naturally, he added.

Can 7-Up cure heartburn?

"I doubt if 7-Up helps," said Dr. Robert Marks, a University of Alabama assistant professor of medicine. A better bet, he said, is chewing gum. In a recent study, Marks and co-researcher Dr. Swarnjit Singh found that chewing gum after a meal reduced the amount of time acid stays in the esophagus, thus relieving heartburn in 7 of 10 subjects.

In another study of 80 pregnant women, Marks and Singh found that gum works better than over-the-counter antacid Tums in quelling heartburn.

"The more you chew, the more saliva [is produced]," Marks said. Saliva neutralizes the stomach acid that's inched back up the esophagus, in part because it contains bicarbonate. Either sugared or sugarless gum is fine, Marks said, because it's the chewing, not the gum, that's the key.

Can flat cola relieve traveler's diarrhea?

"The fact that it's flat is helpful, because carbonation can lead to gas and the acidity can irritate the bowel," said Dr. Alan Spira, medical director of the Travel Medicine Center, Beverly Hills. But drinking flat 7-Up without any caffeine is probably a better alternative, he said, "because you avoid the stimulant effect of the caffeine."

A variety of prescription drugs can help treat travelers' diarrhea. Since dehydration is common, travelers are also advised to increase their intake of water and to consider oral rehydration solutions (such as Pedialyte), widely available at drugstores.

To reduce the risk of travel-related diarrhea, travelers eating in restaurants might consider avoiding foods that have been cooked and reheated, such as casseroles, quiche and lasagna. Those foods were identified as risk factors in a study of more than 1,200 patients treated for diarrhea at a clinic in Nepal and reported in the Journal of the American Medical Assn. last month. Consuming blended fresh fruit and yogurt drinks also increased risk, according to the study.

Although travelers hoping to avoid diarrhea are almost always advised to abstain from salads, fresh fruits and ice in developing countries, those items did not increase risk of diarrhea in this study, conducted by a team from the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research. Yet the researchers stopped short of condoning these items for travelers.

Can having a shot of liquor before going outdoors help ward off hypothermia, an abnormally low body temperature that can prove fatal in cold weather environments?

"It's a common misconception," Spira said, and dangerous. "Drinking alcohol dilates your blood vessels and impairs your judgment." Heat loss is increased as the blood vessels of the skin dilate.

Treating hypothermia as soon as it becomes apparent is best. Experts advise warming the patient as much as possible and getting medical help fast.

As it progresses, hypothermia can affect functioning of the heart, intellect and muscles.

Is a tourniquet still the best first aid for treating a poisonous snakebite?

Not at all, said Lee Cantrell, a pharmacist and supervisor of the Los Angeles Regional Poison Information Center. The best idea is to get the victim to a hospital or other medical help as quickly as possible. Keep the wound clean, Cantrell and other experts advise, but do not make cuts, as traditionally recommended. Suctioning of venom must be done within a narrow window of time or it can be harmful; therefore nonmedical personnel are discouraged from attempting it.

Can warm milk help relieve jet lag?

It probably couldn't hurt, said Michael M. Stevenson, clinical director of the North Valley Sleep Disorders Center, Mission Hills. Milk contains tryptophan, an amino acid that can prompt drowsiness and relaxation.

The typical regimen to minimize jet lag, recommended by Stevenson and others, is a prescription of short-acting hypnotics and light therapy--that is, to get as much sunlight as possible at the destination at the time travelers are supposed to be awake.

"Try to immerse yourself in the new schedule a day or so before you leave," Stevenson suggested. "Eat on the new schedule. Set your watch on the new schedule. If it's noon in New York City, you should be eating lunch at noon, not waiting until 3 p.m."

Can acupressure quell motion sickness?

Definitely, says Senqi Hu, associate professor of psychology at Humboldt State University, Arcata, Calif. In his study of 64 people, published last year in the journal Aviation, Space, and Environmental Medicine, those assigned to the acupressure group experienced less severe symptoms of motion sickness than other subjects. In the other groups, subjects received no acupressure, had it performed on them incorrectly or had it performed on an improper acupressure point.

The proper point is a point about two finger widths above the wrist crease on the palm side of the hand, between the major tendons.

In the study, subjects in a laboratory setting were exposed for 12 minutes to a rotating drum that simulated conditions associated with motion sickness, and the acupressure continued for the same time.

The Healthy Traveler appears the second and fourth week of every month.

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