Sunday, March 15, 2009

Gran's home cures

Gran's home cures
Mon, Mar 16, 2009
The Straits Times

[Top: (From left) Tiger Balm ointment, Nin Jiom Pei Pa Koa and Prickly Heat Powder.]

By Poon Chian Hui

You probably have some of these items in your bathroom cabinet.

Generations of Singaporeans have depended on them to treat ailments ranging from the occasional sore throat to stomach discomforts and even toothache.

What are these old-fashioned remedies and how do they work? Mind Your Body asked health professionals whether these good old standards can actually give you relief and whether you need to be cautious when using them:


Used for: Headaches, insect bites, muscle aches and pains.

What makes it work?

The ingredients cajaput oil and Japanese mint oil help destroy germs, said Ms Lim Wan Peng, a senior pharmacist at Tan Tock Seng Hospital.

In addition, it contains clove oil, a mild anaesthetic which helps to relieve pain, she added.

The ointment comes in two forms, white and red. The white balm provides fast relief from problems like headaches while the latter is used for muscular pains.

How safe is the product?

The active ingredients that make the product effective may pose some risks, Ms Lim said. For instance, the high menthol content in Japanese mint oil may cause allergic reactions.

Important to know

If you are allergic to aspirin, take heed. Some Tiger Balm products, like Tiger Balm Muscle Rub and Tiger Balm Liniment, contain methyl salicylate, an aspirin-related compound. The white and red ointments are free of this chemical.


Used for: Rashes, insect bites, mild sunburn, acne and minor skin irritations.

What makes it work?

Oxides of zinc and iron provide cooling and soothing effects, hence it relieves itching, said Ms Lim.

Also, zinc oxide's antiseptic and astringent properties help prevent infections and dries up oozing wounds respectively.

How safe is the product?

Side effects are rare and the lotion is safe even for pregnant women, Ms Lim said.

Important to know

Avoid applying on eyes and mucous membranes, like the inside of your nose. Zinc oxide, an astringent, has drying effects.


Used for: Coughs with phlegm, sore throats and dry throats.

What makes it work?

The cough mixture contains an array of herbal extracts which can rectify a range of respiratory tract problems.

A key ingredient is loquat, a plant extract that helps to stop coughs and clear the lungs of phlegm, said Ms Lim.

Pei Pa Koa in Mandarin means 'loquat paste'.

The addition of honey helps to clear the airways and lubricates the throat, she said, adding that some studies found that honey also has the ability to inhibit and kill germs.

How safe is the product?

It is safe for short-term use, said Ms Lim. Prolonged consumption may irritate the gastrointestinal system.

Important to know

The cough mixture may not suit everyone. This is because one of the ingredients, schisandra, is known to cause reactions like heartburn and skin rashes in some people.


Used for: Itching, heat rash and skin irritation from hot weather.

What makes it work?

A number of active ingredients work together to provide cooling and soothing relief to irritated skin.

Menthol and camphor cool the skin and at the same time help prevent itching, said Ms Lim.

Also, kaolin, a clay-like mineral, keeps the skin dry by absorbing sweat moisture, while talcum powder lubricates the skin to prevent chafing and abrasion.

How safe is the product?

It is safe as long as you do not apply it on open wounds, said Ms Lim.


Used for: Toothache or pain caused by tooth extraction.

What makes it work?

Clove oil contains eugenol which has anaesthetic properties, said Dr Melvin Chia, a dental surgeon at Tooth Angels & Co.

Hence, it numbs the pain caused by toothache.

How safe is the product?

Eugenol is toxic when consumed in large amounts, warned Dr Chia, so you should not swallow too much clove oil.

Important to know

Clove oil provides only symptomatic relief by masking the pain.

'It does not cure the dental problem permanently and it's best to seek professional advice before long-term damage sets in, such as root canal infection,' said Dr Chia.

This story was first published in Mind Your Body, The Straits Times.

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