A mustard foot bath, a ban on kissing – and other cures for the common cold

From the archives: Every decade had a cure though bed and hot drinks most popular

The Irish Times, February, 1954.

The Irish Times, February, 1954.


A cure for the common cold continues to evade medics and scientists, but that hasn’t stopped over a century of both experimental research and unfounded claims.

Though designated “common”, this cold even affected royalty. A report in March, 1886 announced: “We have authority for stating that the health of the Princess of Wales is not such as to cause anxiety . . . a common cold, together with the inclemency of the weather, has prevented the usual carriage exercise”.

She may have received a similar prescription to one outlined in 1889: “Twenty grains of salicylic acid, given in liq.ammon.acet. three or four times a day, will so far control a common cold that the aching of the brow, eyelids, &c, and during movements of the eye, will cease in a few hours, while the sneezing and running from the nose will also abate, and will disappear in a few days, and, more fortunate still, the cold will pass off, and not finish up, as is customary, with a cough.”

As patients clamoured to alleviate symptoms, new preparations and prescriptions claimed curative powers. By 1950 more than 10,000 medicines for colds had been patented; such as Congreve’s Balsamic Elixir (1899 ) and Budden’s Balsam of Horehound (1902). A “cold cure” was just one of Munyan’s homeopathic “47 cures for 47 different diseases”.

In 1915, tar syrup was one wartime remedy: “Mixing two ounces pure bitrate of tar, obtainable of any chemist,with a plain syrup made by dissolving half a pound of sugar in half a pint of hot water. Take one or two teaspoonfuls three or four times a day, and you will find that the worst cough will quickly disappear, and colds will be cured in a day.”

From The Irish Times in February, 1955.
From The Irish Times in February, 1955.

An easier option was offered in 1917, when your cold could be “cured while working or sleeping by a few drops of Pareen inhaled from the handkerchief or pillow”.

“Bed” and “frequent hot drinks” was 1923’s chosen treatment. Heat to treat a “cold” was also popular in the form of turkish baths, hot whiskey or rum, and later Bovril. Instructions for a 1930s regimen included: “When ready for bed, prepare a mustard bath . . . Put the feet in the bath, and keep up the temperature of the water by adding from the kettle during the ten minutes of the immersion – the time is important.

“Keep the shoulders and thighs warmly wrapped up, and while taking the foot bath, sip a glass of hot lemon toddy, or better still, an infusion of elderflower, peppermint or coltsfoot – all pleasant old herbal remedies which will be found most efficacious.

“Then to bed between blankets because the object of the foregoing treatment is to induce the cold to come out in perspiration, and cotton or linen is apt to chill the skin.”

Despite the popular adage, our physician in October 1941 advised that colds should be starved, not fed: “Very often germs thrive best in the strong and overfed body. If a person suffering a cold would make up his mind to eat nothing but water-biscuits and oranges until he was better, he would be rewarded by a quick recovery.”

Between the 1930s and 1950s anti-histamines fell into, and then out, of favour as a cure, while “ammoniated tincture of quinine” was the chemist’s winter best-seller in 1943. Old remedies still on sale included, treacle and sulphur, and liquorice root.

In 1945 English factory workers “discovered that the onset of the common cold can be averted by sniffing chlorine fumes from a dilution of hydrochloric acid and potassium chlorate”. A doctor who was consulted in the matter agreed that the effect was likely to be beneficial. “Sniff”, he advised, “until you begin to cough.”

Another dubious medical panacea was the “top hat cure” from Dr GK Selborne in 1954. “You go to bed with a top hat and a bottle of whisky. You throw the top hat over the bedpost and drink the whisky until you see two top hats.”

Ongoing efforts to find a cure were recorded, including the work of the Common Cold Research Unit, in Salisbury, England. From 1947 thousands of volunteers spent time in isolation receiving inoculations of suspected cold virus material. “Still hardier volunteers have sat about in cold draughts, exercised in the rain until they were tired out, worn wet socks, and submitted to other calculated discomforts.”

Meanwhile in France, subjects were given a cold in the head in 1955 and “sent into a profound sleep” while their body temperature was gradually lowered, in a bid to “kill off the cold by freezing it out”.

The Irish Times – December 11th, 1928.
The Irish Times – December 11th, 1928.


Over the years ascorbic acid (vitamin C) was recommended as a cure, a preventative, and a means of shortening a cold. Winter doses of vitamins A and D in the form of cod-liver oils, halibut oil, or preparations such as Angier’s Emulsion (Petroleum with Hypophosphites ), were also promoted as ways of warding off an infection.

Some doctors concentrated efforts on prevention rather than cure. In 1895, the president of the Dublin Sanitary Association, Dr JW Moore, warned of the transmission of coryza – “cold in the head” – by the “promiscuous use” of infected handkerchiefs to blow children’s noses, by mothers and nurses.

Dr Moore also cautioned against the “dangerous practice” of kissing , which spread disease including colds.

Almost 60 years later, another doctor warned: “All hosts and hostesses should ban kissing games from their Christmas parties. Money usually spent on mistletoe should be put into cotton wool and other protections against the common cold.”

Colds were never just a winter affliction. In August 1942 “at least one in every five of Dublin citizens” was suffering from unseasonable sniffles. The author of an Irishman’s Diary column found a century-old newspaper ad for respirators, designed to protect the wearer against the common cold. “The contraption was clamped over the nose and mouth. By inhaling through the nose, the incoming air in the smaller tubes was heated by the warm air exhaled through the cylinder.” In this way, it was claimed, “a uniformity of temperature would be ensured to that delicate organ, the lungs, thus avoiding all danger of colds or flu”.

The year 1954 brought another preventative innovation. Two civil service departments begin “breathing air treated with a germicide, on the assumption that it will reduce their tendency to colds and influenza”. The trial followed the introduction of germicide into the air, and a reduction in respiratory infections, at Dublin Zoo’s monkey house.

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