The History of the Cold and How Some Remedies Could Make You Sick

by TheWritingCowboy

The history of some ubiquitous products go back to the time of the Egyptian Pharaohs. But some of them were likely to cause more harm than good - like heroin in cough drops!

With the arrival of fall and winter, the cold and flu season comes the annual search for a perfect remedy to ward off the illnesses or to make them of short duration.
Early man thought that getting sick was some sort of divine punishment and that performing some kind of healing to get rid of what ailed them was a form of purification. With that in mind, some cold remedies had their beginnings in most peculiar ways. Thank goodness human kind has short memories.


For example, one of the oldest and most favored of cold remedies – Vicks’ VapoRub wasn’t the product you find in the pharmacy or grocery store today. This odorous mixture had its start in 1905 when a druggist, Lunsford Richardson, blended menthol with petroleum jelly and called it Richardson’s Croup and Pneumonia Cure Salve – a name that promised more than it could deliver. Richardson found that by rubbing the goop on one’s forehead and chest, body heat would vaporize it and open blocked nasal passages. He eventually changed the name to Vicks in honor of his brother-in-law, Dr. Joshua Vick, in whose drugstore Richardson had mixed his first batch.


Perhaps one of the strangest paths to fame and fortune came from Robert Cheseborough, the inventor of Vaseline. He promoted the stuff as a one-item-fixes-it-all cure. In addition to more common cures for helping protect cuts and bruises, he claimed the goop as a wood protectant; stain remover and rust preventative to mention just a few.   Cheseborough was so sure of the usefulness of his product that he would eat a spoonful a day. Really! He would also cut and scratch himself to test the effectiveness of the jelly. Ouch!


Another product touted early on for its healing properties was Listerine.  Developed by Dr. Joseph Lawrence in 1880 it was named after Sir Joseph Lister, a British surgeon.  Lister was disgusted by the deplorable conditions in doctors’ offices and hospitals and campaigned for improvement. Lawrence was an advocate of Lister’s theories and developed the alcohol-based liquid to sterilize medical utensils. It wasn’t until much later that the product started to be used for mouthwash, although eventually the company that made Listerine had to tone down its claims of the healing power of Listerine under the threat of government action.

Cough Drops

The perennial favorite of children and adults, cough drops go back to ancient Egypt in their origin. But, they didn’t have anything to do with curing coughs. Rather the Egyptians make hard candies sweetened with honey. Only later did they add spices and herbs to help with coughing.

Cough drops evolved further in the 19th century when drugs were added to the candies.  Among the first such drugs were opiates such as morphine and heroin. Can you imagine getting busted today for sucking on those cough drops? It might not have fixed what ailed them, but users of the candy were probably so buzzed they didn’t care. The cough drop manufacturers eventually turned to slightly less narcotized ingredients such as codeine, the staple of most cough medicine today.


The use-it-for-anything-that-ails-you drug, Aspirin, first appeared as a powder made from the bark of a willow tree. Sadly, one side affect of the product was internal bleeding.  The first product to actually be called Aspirin was made in France in 1853. In the late 1800s in Germany a chemist working for Bayer found the drug could help his father’s arthritis.  The company started manufacturing the powder (it wasn’t until 1915 that a tablet version became available) and it became one of the company’s biggest sellers.

So common was Aspirin that it found its way into the history books as a major part of the World War I peace agreement. As part of the armistice, Germany agreed to transfer their brand name Aspirin, to the victorious allies. But, in a 1921 court case, the judge ruled that the name Aspirin had been so popularized that no company, individual nor country, owned the trademark.  Since then the word aspirin (lower case since it is now generic) can be used by any company.


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Updated: 08/05/2014, TheWritingCowboy
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DerdriuMarriner on 04/08/2022

Revisiting your wizzley made me consider new and old remedies for common colds.

Was there any indication among your research that people still favor horehound candies and drinks or milk and honey?

And, in terms of medications, would you happen to know if doctors still prescribe codeine and what they do about controlling dependence and dosage?

DerdriuMarriner on 08/07/2017

TheWritingCowboy, What about chicken soup?

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