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Sick on the road? Try the grocery store

Chewing gum, coffee grounds and other common items could help you fight ailments while you're away.
Ellen Weinstein
/ Source: The New York Times

Adventurous travelers are often in a quandary: how do they pack lightly and still be prepared for the unexpected?

Travel-savvy physicians, pharmacists and scientists suggest that some grocery items available almost anywhere can do double duty for on-the-road ailments. “You don’t need to pack a medicine chest on holiday,” said Dave Harcombe, a pharmacist in Doncaster, England. “I rely on traditional medicine to pay my mortgage,” he added. “But in certain cases, home remedies are as good as drugs. There’s a place in the world for both of them.”

Mr. Harcombe used his travel experience and that of his customers to create a list of items that he posted on the Web site Debbie Marshall, editor of the site, said the response has been enthusiastic. “It is well worth knowing some of the healing properties of common foods when traveling,” she said, noting that acquiring and using conventional medicines in certain countries can be complicated. “Pharmaceutical labels may be written in an unfamiliar language, quantities can be ambiguous and quite often nature has a remedy that will bridge the gap until more conventional aid can be found.”

“My slant is there’s nothing wrong with old wives’ tales in the kitchen or in the medicine cabinet as long as there is validity to them,” said Kent Kirshenbaum, a pharmaceutical chemist and an associate professor of chemistry at New York University. He is quick to add, though, that travelers should not disregard signs of a serious problem. “If somebody thinks that they can take a food to treat a serious ailment, they can be in for a world of hurt,” he said.

With that in mind, here are some novel ways to treat common travel maladies.

Stomach problems
It may be difficult to try this in Singapore, where the sale of chewing gum is restricted, but most everywhere else in the world, travelers with digestive ailments can find relief by chewing sugar-free gum.

For reasons he describes as “mysterious,” Joe Graedon, a pharmacologist in North Carolina, notes that many travelers suffer from constipation, for which he says sorbitol, the artificial sweetener used in sugar-free gum, can provide relief.

“The nonsugar sweeteners draw fluid into the colon and digestive tract,” said Mr. Graedon, who with his wife, Teresa, a medical anthropologist, wrote the book “The People’s Pharmacy: Quick and Handy Home Remedies.” They also run the Web site

Chewing gum also can help with heartburn by stimulating the production of saliva. “Saliva buffers the contents of the esophagus, acts as a flushing agent and washes back down into the stomach anything that comes up into the esophagus in the form of reflux,” said Mr. Graedon, who added that chewing sugar-free gum will “keep the dentist happy.”

Another common travel malady is nausea, as some airline and cruise passengers know all too well. Chewing ginger root, a common cooking ingredient in many cultures around the world, can reduce nausea, though whether it has an actual chemical effect on the stomach or is merely an effective distraction is debated.

Dr. John LaPuma, a physician in California who specializes in nutrition-based medicine and is the author of “ChefMD’s Big Book of Culinary Medicine,” says that so far, studies show mixed results with ginger tablets as a treatment for nausea, but in his experience, chewing two inches of unpeeled, unadulterated ginger root is effective. “I’ve suggested it to a dozen patients and have yet to hear of someone who doesn’t benefit, who doesn’t have an improvement in airsickness before or during flight,” he said.

Buzzing bugs and bites
Mosquitoes, horseflies, bees and wasps never seem to go on vacation. Burning coffee grounds in a saucer, creating a barrier of talcum powder or even putting the powder in one’s hair before outdoor activities can create an inhospitable environment for flying pests. It’s not that bugs don’t like coffee, it’s the smoke from burning it and the dust of the talcum that serves as the repellent, according to Dr. LaPuma. “Sweet-smelling things attract bees,” he said, “smoky-smelling things repel them.” A small amount of grounds set alight on a saucer will “smolder for hours,” Mr. Harcombe says.

If a bee does sting, Dr. LaPuma recommends flicking the stinger out first and applying ice. “All the other stuff is second to ice,” he said. “Put the ice right on your skin and see if you can reduce the inflammation.”

For itchy bites like those from mosquitoes, Mr. Graedon recommends the hot water treatment. Applying water as hot as tolerable provides a lengthy and effective period of relief and (I can attest) is a good solution for poison-ivy rashes, too. “It works by desensitizing those nerves that send the itch sensation to your brain,” Mr. Graedon said.

If we have to include the well-known treatment of applying urine to jellyfish stings, Professor Kirshenbaum said that when he vacationed in Australia with his family, bottles of vinegar were left on the beach specifically to treat stings. “Vinegar for jellyfish stings is well established,” he said, “but urine is not acidic. You’ll do much better with vinegar.”

Eye problems
On a recent trip to Beijing I failed to pack cleaning solution for my old-fashioned gas-permeable contact lenses. Even the optical shop I found didn’t stock it, so I e-mailed an ophthalmologist, Dr. Robert Josephberg of Valhalla, N.Y., who recommended baby shampoo. “Bottled water would be fine to rinse them if you wash them with Johnson’s baby shampoo,” he wrote. The shampoo was remarkably easy to find, and I was saved from a blurry travel experience.

Baby shampoo is not just good for forgetful contact lens wearers, Mr. Harcombe said. Diluted 1 part to 10 parts water, the solution can be used for some eye infections or irritated eyes. “Baby shampoo is not a curative for eye infections like an antibiotic, but it can alleviate the symptoms,” Professor Kirshenbaum said. “Cleaning crusty eyes of oils and deposits will benefit from mild soaps that are nonirritating.”

Cuts and burns
Pepper sprinkled right out of the shaker and applied to a bleeding cut will stanch blood flow, according to Mr. Graedon, who said he learned of this home remedy from a woodcarver and has subsequently heard more stories of pepper’s effectiveness.

Sugar can double as an antibacterial treatment, according to Marion Nestle, a professor in the department of nutrition and public health at New York University. “Sugar acts osmotically,” she said. “It draws fluid out.”

Such emergency treatments from the supermarket may be more effective on some people than on others. But Professor Kirshenbaum sees value in recognizing that in the absence of a pharmacy, it makes a lot of sense to consider what items you may have on hand to alleviate discomfort.

All the experts I consulted for suggestions for on-the-road remedies noted that for true emergencies, travelers should use common sense and get medical help. It doesn’t take too long to figure out if a makeshift treatment is effective, Mr. Harcombe said. “If it’s not working within two to three hours, it’s probably not going to work,” he said. “So get medical advice sooner rather than later.”

This article, "," first appeared in The New York Times.