What Were the Age-Old Remedies for Toothache?
Everyone needs a toothache cure at some time!
"Love conquers all things except poverty and toothache.."
It's the one pain that we've all suffered from and remember intently! Whether it's the sharp stabbing of a lost filling or the hot knife of an abscess, we all sympathise with anyone who is suffering from this nasty pain! However, in the 21st century we have qualified dentists along with chemists and other outlets selling fairly safe pain relief. In days gone by though the poor in particular never had these luxuries and had unique methods of pain relief. The rich could afford something more up-market. What did they use? Substances that are now not only illegal but were also given liberally to their children!
Famous people who took laudanum regularly
1. The artists - Coleridge and DeQuincy in the early 1800's.
2. Author, Wilkie Collins took it to relieve the pain of gout.
3. Poet - Elizabeth Barrett Browning
4. Author - Charles Dickens
5. Rossetti - his wife died due to an overdose of laudanum and it's likely this is what led to Rossetti's death as well
6. Poets - Lord Byron, Shelley, Keats and many others
7. Poet & Author - Edgar Allan Poe
The dangerous 'cures' for toothache
"Some tortures are physical
And some are mental,
But the one that is both
We're all familiar with the class A drugs such as cocaine, morphine and other opiates etc. However, in the 19th and early 20th century these drugs were freely sold over the counter as relief for common ailments that included toothache. They were not illegal and extremely popular. It wasn't until more in depth research was carried out that the dangers of these substances became clear and so restricted by law. However, poisons were also used by some to alleviate toothache but much further back in time.
This is one of the oldest poisons known and has been used to commit murder in real life as well as in fiction. However, 5000 years ago the Chinese began using this dangerous toxin for toothache - it can be presumed that some of the patients died as well.
Made from alcohol and about 10% powdered opium which was the equivalent to 1% morphine - a very high level. This preparation was used widely for many ailments and in particular pain. Even babies and children were given this 'medicine'. There is also documentation from these times that sometimes laudanum was given not for pain but simply when the kids were 'cranky'!
This powerful addictive substance is certainly not a new drug. The leaves from which cocaine comes, was known to the Incas of South America for centuries before it reached other parts of the world. Cocaine in Victorian times was mostly sold in liquid form - either syrup or drops. One of the main reasons they were bought was for babies who were teething!
This lethal substance more commonly known as an anesthetic gas was also used as a general painkiller. One recommendation from 'Materia Medica Pharmacy, Pharmacology And Therapeutics' (1911), W. Hale White, suggests for toothache: "It may be used as a local anaesthetic for toothache, the tooth being plugged with a piece of cotton soaked in chloroform."
Two of the ingredients of ether are sulfuric acid and alcohol. It was used in the treatment of, not only toothache, but also tuberculosis, asthma and whooping cough.
There are numerous, fascinating adverts from both the UK and the USA showing various syrups and tonics that claimed to cure everything from toothache to tuberculosis. One such potion was 'Mrs Winslow's Soothing Syrup'. This syrup would certainly soothe as it contained morphine. More worryingly however, this lethal mixture was made primarily for babies who were teething.
Flowers and plants thought to be good for toothache
1. Hoary Plantain - used for toothache as well as an eyewash and laxative.
2.Yellow Iris - the rhizome of the plant was used to treat toothache and many other ailments
3. Carline Thistle - the roots were brewed into a tea and taken to sooth a toothache.
4. Herb Robert - a very old remedy for toothache and many other ailments.
Home & natural cures for toothache
"You don't have to brush your teeth - just the ones you want to keep."
Oil of cloves
This is a very old natural remedy that for a long time was disregarded as having any ability to cure pain. However, modern research has shown that the plant's active ingredient - eugenol - does have both anaesthetic and anti-bacterial properties. The British Dental Association states that oil of cloves is now one of the main substances used in preparations for teeth.
Watercress is another plant that has been used for a very long time, both for various ailments and its nutritional qualities. The Victorians frequently made watercress into a tea that was believed to cure various aches and pains including toothache. They also took watercress in between courses at meals to clean the mouth.
This is another oil that can be used for toothache. It is however a much weaker pain reliever than oil of cloves but definitely tastes much better.
This was a remedy that both my parents and grandparents used for toothache and for the kids as well - coming from Scotland, what else would we use? Whisky has anaesthetic qualities and can also be used as a mouth wash when you have an abscess. I remember on one occasion having whisky rubbed on my gums near to the sore tooth and as far as I can remember it worked - I also slept very well indeed!
Taking pieces of some vegetables and holding them against a sore tooth was and still is thought to give relief from the pain. Cabbage, cucumber and onion are all thought to work in this way.
The Cunning Man or Cunning Woman
Especially poor people and those living in rural districts relied heavily on their local healer - commonly called a Cunning Man or Woman. Looking at many of their 'cures' for various ailments, it's obvious that they did have an extensive knowledge of herbs and flowers that we now know today do have very good medicinal properties. Some of the herbs and plants that these village healers would use for pain are very toxic. It has to be assumed then that the herbalists of old knew how to prepare the herb/plant so that poisoning didn't usually happen. Some of the most common, toxic plants used for pain were belladonna/deadly nightshade, cowbane, hemlock and henbane.
This beautiful tree has often been referred to as 'the medicine chest of the country'. Today it's still very popular among herbalists. In the past nearly all parts of the tree were used for various ailments and you can find dozens of different preparations in the form of - tinctures, syrups, oils, powder, liniment and many others. Needless to say that the healing properties of this tree was also used to heal toothache. Both twigs from the tree and clay from underneath it were placed onto the painful tooth to cure it. Others made toothpicks from the elder wood to prevent toothaches starting. People had to be cautious however when taking anything from this tree. It was believed that the 'Elder Mother' was the protector of all elder trees and to take anything from one of them without asking would risk her becoming angry and seek revenge.
Wood Betony (Stachys officinalis )
This is a beautiful little plant that grows in a number of places such as undistrubed grassland, hedgerows and at the edge of woods. This plant was believed to have a number of uses in addition to curing toothache. It could also help with treating worms, headaches and nervous tension. The leaves were also used to make a herbal tea and for dyeing cloth.
The cute and weird cures for toothache
"Faced with the choice of enduring a bad toothache or going to the dentist, we generally try to ride out the bad tooth. "
Some of the less conventional treatments for toothache were very strange indeed and some are rather cute! Here's a list of just a few of the weird and wonderful toothache remedies.
As a cure for the toothache the Romans would use urine as a mouthwash - either their own urine or someone else's - I don't know if the 'cure' worked but they must at least have had strong stomachs!
Earliest times to the modern age
From thousands of years ago up until just a few centuries ago the idea that a toothache was either caused by worms or even a demon was widespread. In Ancient Egypt toothache was caused by a demon who took the form of a worm. If these beliefs seem odd just have a look at some of the cures:
- Putting live lice into a tooth cavity was believed to ease the pain.
- If a person had the stomach to smell the tooth of a dead person, this would cure their own painful teeth. Alternatively, you could take out one of the teeth from the corpse and wear it around your neck. Carrying animal teeth or wearing one around your neck was also believed to cure toothache.
- Place a small amount of tobacco under your armpit.
- Catch and kill a mouse and place the dead animal next to the sore tooth.
- Licking a toad's belly was believed to relieve toothache.
- If you didn't fancy the toad, you could catch earthworms, boil them up and then pour the solution into the ear on the same side as the painful tooth.
- If you couldn't sleep because of tooth pain you could catch a frog when the moon was full and proceed to spit into it's mouth.
Many beliefs and superstitions grow up around folk heroes and Robin Hood is no exception. For many years people would take small pieces of stone from Robin's grave as it was thought to cure toothache.
We all know of the tooth fairies who are happy to leave some money under our pillow when we lose our baby teeth. However, you could also get the little people to help you when you had toothache:
- Fairy toothache tree - people would visit these trees thought to be the home of fairies and leave a gift - usually of money - in return for taking away the pain of a sore tooth. However, anyone attempting to remove the money was in danger of making the fairies angry.
- Fairy toothache stone - these were also very common and in the photograph there is an excellent example of people leaving iron in the form of nails for the fairies in order to get rid of the pain.
Try the toothache quiz!
view quiz statistics
What's your remedy for toothache?
"Adam and Eve had many advantages, but the principal one was that they escaped teething." Mark Twain
Even although we're in the 21st century we can be sure that painful toothaches will remain with us for a considerable time into the future. On the bright side we do have modern, fairly safe, pain relief but also many of the old-time remedies to chose from. If you had to chose one of the old remedies for toothache, which one would you try? If anyone has their own home-brewed, tried and tested methods to get rid of toothache then let us all know and we can add it to the list.
I hope you've enjoyed this excursion into pain relief for toothache - but more especially, if you do have toothache, I hope something in the hub has helped the pain!