Some home remedies like cornstarch and water on a bee sting work just fine, but other do-it-yourself health techniques can spell trouble. For instance, do you really think you should be cleansing your colon from the comfort of your home? Or removing wax from your ear by holding a lit candle inches from your head?
Don't be fooled by every home remedy you hear about. Your health is something that should be handled with care. Experts review with WebMD five home remedies that should NOT be attempted at home, describe what works better, and explain when you need to seek professional help from your health care provider.
Home Remedy No-No Number 1: Ear Candling
"Ear wax is a natural lubricant for the ear," says Jennifer Smullen, MD, instructor of otology and laryngology at Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary in Boston. "It waterproofs the ear and it has an acidic pH, so it helps in preventing infections."
Given the benefits of earwax to the body, why would you want to remove it?
While it's uncommon, Smullen explains, some people do have a buildup of wax that causes itching and impaired hearing -- and that's where ear candling comes in. It's marketed as an easy at-home solution for people with this problem and involves taking a candle-shaped beeswax cone, placing it in the ear, lighting it, and after the wick burns down, removing the cone -- along with ear wax and other impurities.
Unfortunately, lighting a flame inches from your ear isn't exactly easy, and in fact, it can be dangerous.
"You can actually lose your hearing from ear candling," says Smullen. "I've had to treat bad consequences of ear candling, including burns in the ear canal and on the eardrum."
Instead of playing with fire, Smullen suggests you start with a tissue around your finger to wipe away excess wax from the outer part of the ear.
If that doesn't work, see your primary care doctor or an ear, nose, and throat specialist for professional help. Over-the-counter ear drops are available, but talk to your doctor first before putting anything in your ear.
Smullen offers a reminder that using a Q-Tip in the canal of the ear is a no-no because it can puncture the eardrum.
Home Remedy No-No Number 2: Whiskey for a Teething Baby
When a baby starts to teethe, he or she usually starts to cry, which means parents might try anything to get junior to stop, including whiskey. While the old wives' tale might offer a glimmer of hope after three nonstop hours of screaming, think again; the liquor cabinet should not be your next stop.
"First of all, children shouldn't be consuming alcohol," says Stanley Alexander, DMD, chairman of the department of pediatric dentistry at Tufts University School of Dental Medicine. "Second, whiskey has no real numbing effect on the gums as the teeth are coming up."
So put the whiskey bottle away, and instead, reach for the freezer.
"The best thing you can possibly do is to chill a teething toy in the freezer and give it to the child," says Alexander. "The cooling effect on the gum will both soothe and numb it."
Or, if the child is old enough, use a sugarless ice pop, with adult supervision.
"For centuries, teething has been a concern to parents," says Alexander. It can cause salivation, irritability, and problems with sleep. If symptoms are severe, then see a doctor.
And the same rule applies for adults: If you have a toothache or tenderness in the gum, whiskey won't help. Instead, a cavity deep in the tooth or a gum infection could be causing the pain, making it time to see a dentist.
Home Remedy No-No Number 3: Butter for a Burn
While you might be of the opinion that butter makes everything better, it's important to remember that this rule applies to food, not burns.
"Butter might offer modest value for a burn by having a slight cooling effect, but it tends to melt due to body heat and there is a risk of infection because it's not sterile," says Robert Sheridan, MD, a surgeon in the burn units of Massachusetts General Hospital and Shriner's Hospital for Children.
For mild to moderate first-degree burns and second-degree burns limited to an area no larger than 3 inches in diameter, Sheridan recommends an over-the-counter antibiotic burn ointment. Gently apply it to the burned skin, and keep it covered for cleanliness. You can also try ibuprofen or acetaminophen to help alleviate pain.
Cool tap water can also help, but only in the first minute after you're burned, explains Sheridan. Any greater length of time and the damage is already done. If you're near a faucet, run the burn under water for at least five minutes.
Other burn no-no's: Toothpaste is a common home remedy that Sheridan often hears about in the burn unit, but again, it offers no benefit other than a slight cooling effect, and the same infection concerns apply. Also, while it might make sense to treat a burn with ice, it doesn't help, and it could make matters worse.
"If a burn is deep enough, it can cause a loss of sensation around the wound," says Sheridan. "So ice can compound the problem by adding frostbite to the burn because you can't tell that it hurts."
When should you call for help? If you're worried about a burn; if you have a fever; if you have moderate to severe pain or no pain at all as a result of a third-degree burn; or if there is increasing redness around the wound.
Home Remedy No-No Number 4: Colloidal Silver
With hype and hope spread by word of mouth and the Internet, colloidal silver is believed by some to help treat a range of infections and diseases.
"People believe that colloidal silver can treat fungal infections, TB, HIV, herpes, and even cancer by boosting the immune system," says Ted Epperly, MD, president-elect of the American Academy of Family Physicians.
Unfortunately for colloidal sliver supporters, they're wrong, and the consequences of their mistake could be costly.
"One of the most well-known side effects of colloidal silver is that it turns a person's skin a greyish shade of blue," says Epperly.
The skin isn't the only organ affected by colloidal silver; so are the kidneys, stomach, and brain, as well as the nervous system. Silver is actually deposited into the cells of these organs, possibly causing cell damage and death, leading to organ failure.
"The effects of colloidal silver are toxic and cumulative," says Epperly. "Worse, they're irreversible."
Epperly urges people to ignore the hype and instead, talk to a health care provider about the proper way to treat infections and diseases.
Home Remedy No-No Number 5: Home Colon Cleansing
"We hear a lot about the toxic effects of the contents of the colon on the body," says Robert Siegel, MD, a fellow with the American College of Gastroenterology. "But that's a fallacy."
And that's where home colon cleansing products come into play. People hear the claims that their colons are filled with toxic waste matter and that the solution is to flush them out with herbs, probiotics, special diets, enemas, or laxatives.
The fact of the matter is that the colon is a waste receptacle, explains Siegel. Its function is to let fecal material pass out of the body, naturally.
Trying to cleanse your colon from the comforts of your home can disrupt your body's electrolyte balance, causing dehydration and salt depletion. Over time, frequent colon cleansing can even lead to anemia, malnutrition, and heart failure.
Instead of cleaning your colon on your own, start by increasing your fiber intake by eating more fruits and vegetables, or by adding a supplement to your diet -- 38 grams for men and 25 grams for women 50 and younger -- every day.
If you're still feeling constipated and uncomfortable, Siegel recommends you see your primary care doctor or a gastroenterologist.