Would you like to buy some water?

Friend of the blog Beth would like me write about whether letting babies “cry it out” hurts their brains. And I’m working on it, I swear! The problem is that the literature seems to be failing me. I’ll get back to you when I have some data other than “this group says X” and “this group says Y”.

So today I thought I’d go after some low-hanging fruit: homeopathic medicines. Like, say, Hyland’s Teething Tablets. (Beth is laughing at me now, but I’m still annoyed by this.)

I’ve always thought that you should start as you mean to go on, so…homeopathic medicines are bunk. Nonsense. A waste of your money. No better than a placebo.

Let’s take a step back, though, and look at what these so-called medicines actually are. The theory (if I can dignify it with that term) has a couple of parts. One is the idea that to cure a disease you need to ingest something that gives you similar symptoms.

Homeopaths also believe that once water comes in contact with a substance, it “remembers” the properties of that substance, and even after it’s so diluted that only a few molecules (or none!) of the original substance remain, the water will have those properties. So they’ll take some, say, belladonna (hi, poison!) and dilute dozens or hundreds of times, until there’s only a molecule or two left. Then they sell that to you.

Seriously. I’m not kidding you. (If you want to know absolutely everything about why homeopathy is not worth your money, check out Homeowatch.)

I’m not kidding about the belladonna, by the way. Those teething tablets I mentioned at the beginning? They’ve been cited for containing “inconsistent amounts of belladonna.” Some of them are perfectly safe (if useless) because they contain nothing but some water and sugar, but some actually contain enough belladonna to be dangerous to little kids. Dude! The homeopaths can’t even reliably sell you water!

To recap, here are the possibilities:

1. You’re being sold water and sugar (harmless and useless in curing disease or easing symptoms)

2. You’re being sold something that’s supposed to cure your disease because it gives you similar symptoms to the disease (possibly harmful and most likely useless)

Homeopathic “medicines” generally haven’t been tested to see if they work. In the cases where they have been tested (for example, lots of your tax dollars are being wasted at the NIH’s National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine) they have turned out to be pretty much useless.

Even NCCAM, which is about as credulous as a legitimate source can be, says the following about homeopathy:

  • Most analyses have concluded that there is little evidence to support homeopathy as an effective treatment for any specific condition; although, some studies have reported positive findings.
  • There are challenges in studying homeopathy and controversies regarding the field. This is largely because a number of its key concepts are not consistent with the current understanding of science, particularly chemistry and physics.
  • There is limited research on the safety of homeopathic treatments. (Excerpted from Homeopathy: An Introduction)

So why do some kids act like they feel better after they’ve been given them? (I’ve heard plenty of anecdotal reports. ::coughs::)

I strongly suspect it’s the mommy effect (which is sort of like the placebo effect, but more awesome). When you give your kids something, they trust that you’re taking care of them. Attention from a mommy makes them feel better already. Just about anything you give them would have the same effect.

There’s also the possibility that the kids aren’t actually unhappy because of teething or that they simply needed a distraction from whatever existential baby angst was bothering them, and mommy coming over with a sugar pill did the trick.

Don’t waste your money on Hyland’s Teething Tablets or Zicam or Oscillococcinum. If you’ve got a cold, get some rest and have a bowl of chicken soup (my husband makes a fabulous chicken soup, if you need a recipe). You’re a heck of a lot better off depending on pseudoephedrine (Sudafed) and chicken soup for congestion (research shows it works better than other types of soup), honey for coughs (a teaspoon or two for anyone over the age of 1), and some nice over-the-counter painkillers, like acetaminophen, ibuprofen, or naproxen.

If you feel a need for water, tap water is pretty safe in most of the country. And it’s got no sugar or belladonna. It does have fluoride for your teeth, though! (That’s a post for another day…)


About mamamara

I'm a 40-something, work-at-home mother of two. I'm pro-vaccine, pro-medicine, pro-science, and an avid reader of information about all of the above, and I want to combine my love for my children with my love for science. So here we are!
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9 Responses to Would you like to buy some water?

  1. alysonmiers says:

    WTF. Here I was willing to let homeopathy off as “at least there’s nothing in there that’ll hurt you” and now they’re letting belladonna into some of those pills? Man, can’t they just take ridiculous liberties with the laws of physics like a good little woo-factory, but stay away from the active ingredients?

    “although, some studies have reported positive findings” = PLACEBO EFFECT.

  2. trexphile says:

    Oh man, the timing of this post is just fabulous. I just finished up a story in my Analog e-magazine that addressed homeopathic “cures”! Being a science fiction story, it had an interesting twist to it 😉

  3. debc says:

    My daughter’s doctor recently told me to give her honey for a couch/sore throat that wasn’t going away. To be more precise, he prescribed me to give her warm tea with honey and lemon. He also gave her some robitussin, but he did specify the tean and honey.

    • Shai says:

      Doesn’t honey pose a risk for either rye syndrome or botulism?

    • mamamara says:

      Oh yeah, lemon juice is acidic and good at killing nasties in the throat. If she hates tea (like me), you can do hot lemonade with hot water, honey, and lemon juice. I’m going to have to do some research and post about cough medicines, because I *think* all the over-the-counter ones are useless.

      • debc says:

        See? I don’t know if I’m just weird or what, but whenever I put lemon in my tea, hot or cold, it causes me to get the sore throat most people are drinking honey tea to avoid. Cepacol does the same thing. But the honey I can do because it coats and sooths and I like that.

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