Appalachia Appalachian Medicine Pap

Earache Remedies

Earache remedies from appalachia

A few weeks ago Blind Pig reader Bobby Dale, sent me the following question:

“Hi Tipper,
Just wondering if you have heard in your mountain venue the medical treatment of blowing smoke in one’s ear to cure an earache? I’ve practiced medicine for 40 years in MS and OH. I had an elderly patient tell me this morning that her father used to doctor her earache by blowing smoke in her ear. I’ve never heard that one before.
Bobby Dale”

I wrote Bobby Dale back and said YES I have heard of blowing smoke in someone’s ear to relieve or cure an earache.

I’ve only had 2 earaches in my lifetime. The first was when I was between 5 and 8 years old. Pap smoked Prince Albert cigarettes in those days, but I don’t remember if he blew smoke in my ear or not. What I do remember was the pain that made me roll around on Granny’s couch and bawl.

The next earache came when I was 18 years old. Pap and I had been sick on and off all winter long. I was out running around with friends one Saturday night when my ear started hurting. By morning, I was pacing the hall holding my ear. After Pap got home from church him and Granny took me to the ER where I bawled like a baby, paced some more, and waited for someone to see me. When the doc said the infection was so bad my eardrum would likely burst I started a new round of crying. He quickly explained it would heal itself and I would still be able to hear. He also said my pain would stop immediately. My eardrum burst on the way to the drug store and the doc was right I had instant relief from my pain.

Folk Medicine in Southern Appalachia by Anthony Cavender has an entire entry about earaches and the remedies people used to cure them.

According to Cavender, most folks thought cold air going into the ear is what caused the ache. Makes sense since cold air does make your ear hurt for a little while if you’re out in it for any length of time without a toboggan or earmuffs.

Cavender said since folks believed cold, was the culprit, they tried to warm the ear up by blowing smoke in it or pouring warmed liquid in the ear. The following cures were listed in the earache entry of Cavender’s book:

  • pouring warm urine into the ear
  • dripping sap from a warmed sapling into the ear
  • dripping warm sweet oil in the ear (I’ve actually seen this one used and it did seem to help the pain. I believe it is still a fairly common remedy in my part of Appalachia.)
  • blowing smoke into the ear
  • placing a warm compress on the ear area (this one is common here and beyond I’m sure)

I shared Bobby Dale’s question with Pap and asked him what remedies he remembered from childhood.

Pap said, “They told me I liked to have died from an earache when I was about 3 years old. I don’t remember it. But they said they got a little bundle of sourwood limbs and set them in the fireplace. Not where they’d burn up, just where they’d get good and hot. Then they caught the sap that came out of the wood and poured it in my ear.” I remember people blowing smoke in ears too and even cupping the ear with a glass to try and keep the smoke inside. Some people swore by putting warm buttermilk mixed with sodie in their ear when they had an earache. And of course I’ve used plain old peroxide to clean mine out good.”

Home remedies seem to be making a comeback. Not the urine in the ear type of remedies, but natural herbal remedies are on the rise in my neck of the woods.



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  • Reply
    February 22, 2017 at 10:11 am

    Bear oil is very good for the earache I always keep some on hand

  • Reply
    Crystal Richmond
    March 13, 2015 at 2:15 pm

    Very Vivid memories of being 11 yrs old visiting my Aunt and Uncle 3 hours away from home. Believe it or not I had prayed and prayed to ” Have an Earache” cause all my classmates were always having them and I wanted to see what it was like! My Aunt , being an older woman with many home remedies , used the ” Urine” method. I recall I was in AGONY all night walking the floor. My Uncle blew smoke in my ear. I can’t recall what exactly caused it to stop hurting but I DO remember I NEVER PRAYED FOR ANOTHER EARACHE AGAIN!!! And at 57 I have never ever had another one. Be CAREFUL what YOU PRAY FOR! Crys in Arkansas

  • Reply
    March 13, 2015 at 6:36 am

    Pamela-its been so many years that I dont really remember how long it took for my ear to heal. Im hoping yours gets better quicker than the 40 days!!!

  • Reply
    Pamela Danner
    March 12, 2015 at 10:55 pm

    Hi Tipper! I blew a hole in my eardrum a few weeks ago. The hole has healed but I still don’t have complete hearing back yet. How long did it take for your ear to heal? I have heard up to 40 days.

  • Reply
    Patty hall
    March 12, 2015 at 8:00 pm

    use to have horrible ear aches! I remember one time someone giving my dad some ground hog oil, it was heated up and dripped into my ear, then plugged up with cotton.

  • Reply
    March 12, 2015 at 6:26 pm

    Hi Tipper,No ones mentioned vex,I put it on cotton and in the ear,always works for me.God Bless.

  • Reply
    mary Lou McKIllip
    March 12, 2015 at 4:09 pm

    Sweet oil was Mama treatment, but we know something warm stops pain.
    Urine was used with sever bee stinks, get in a bathtub if you get sever bee stings and soak, the acid in the urine will drawn the stinger and release swelling. This might save your life one day before you could get to a doctor( it’s the acid in the urine)
    Here is an old wives tale, I had the pink eye I caught in school and our older neighbor caught me by the arm and said little girl get a black cat and rub it tail in you eye. I was quick to tell him no way.

  • Reply
    Gary Powell
    March 12, 2015 at 3:28 pm

    Years ago my daughter had a bad earache. It was late so we went to the drugstore. Druggist had heard of sweet oil treatment, but wasn’t too confident. A plumber that I worked with was in the drugstore and heard us. He said to put nosedrops up her nose. That a blockage was what caused the pain. We did this and it worked like a charm.

  • Reply
    Bobby Dale
    March 12, 2015 at 2:53 pm

    Thanks for running my question today. I’ve read the several responses with interest and will offer a few comments. Some folks wrote about various warmed oils which were sometimes helpful. The physics behind this is that any substance which is more concentrated than blood or fluid behind the eardrum will actually help relieve the pressure in the middle ear by osmosis, that is actually drawing the fluid causing the pressure and pain through the eardrum itself. It helps pain but not infection. The comment about urine is interesting, and as noted, urine is usually sterile and often concentrated. It would also work by osmosis. I spec it would be repulsive to most people, however. Your mention of ear drum rupture with instant pain relief and subsequent healing of the hole there is right on. Nature’s way! And finally, any warm substance, i.e. air, smoke, or liquid would usually be soothing. Glad to know others have heard of “blowing smoke”, this time for a good reason!
    Bobby Dale

  • Reply
    mark mojado
    March 12, 2015 at 1:50 pm

    Native anericans of the south west coast ues White sage smoke and smudge to cleanse negative enegry heated black sage leaves to apply topically toearachesand sore throats.White sage included teas for treating common cold symptoms,stomach problems and canker sores

  • Reply
    Sheryl Paul
    March 12, 2015 at 1:18 pm

    I took several herbal certification classes, the most useful thing for an earache was to heat an onion cut in half in the oven until hot, wrap it in a dishtowel and place them on both ears. First thing taught is to treat both ears, nostrils, or what ever else there are two of.

  • Reply
    March 12, 2015 at 12:21 pm

    I wasn’t going to tell this but
    since it was in your first remedy
    heading, I will.
    When I was about 3 or 4, I had the earache. Daddy peed in a small can and poured it in my ear. I guess the warmth and salty combination did the trick. But as you can imagine, I had 5
    brothers who had their jem-slingers out trying to help.

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    March 12, 2015 at 11:07 am

    My father also smoked Prince Albert and blew smoke in my ears when I had an earache. It might have been the placebo effect but it worked for me. The earache would go away within a few minutes and wouldn’t come back for months.

    • Reply
      Lee Elliott
      June 17, 2019 at 11:47 pm

      My grandparents used to send my mother out to look under a log and find a Bessie Bug or Horn Beetle. They would break the beetle in half and drip warm blood into the affected ear. Worked every time.

  • Reply
    Paul Certo
    March 12, 2015 at 10:31 am

    My father did that when we had earaches. He was from Pennsylvania, not sure if that was something he learned there, or from ma’s side of the family.

  • Reply
    b. Ruth
    March 12, 2015 at 10:17 am

    Richard and Tipper,
    Oh my goodness, I never ever heard this one about the Betty Bug oil…I am going to write that remedy down…Richard do you mind to tell me what part of North Carolina you are from, was it a local remedy, do you know if the idea was passed down from a grandmother etc.? It must have been close to a woodland to have access to those big bugs…
    I never heard these big beetles called Betty bugs…
    I have heard of Bessie Bugs…You know the old saying “crazier than a Bessie bug”…no intention relative to your relative Richard!
    Thanks Tipper and Richard…
    See how a new remedy has “jumped up”! This is one for my folklore medical book!

  • Reply
    March 12, 2015 at 10:04 am

    There seems to be another process for removing wax from an ear called candeling. I have a couple of friends in NC who have gotten into this process. I have used water and vinegar in the ear for swimmers’ ear aches. Carbunkles are also something that can happen inside an ear. They can be quite painful. Sweet oil is recommended for ear aches. Never poke a Q-tip into your ear. You’re asking for trouble doing that or poking anything else into your ear.

  • Reply
    Jim Casada
    March 12, 2015 at 9:51 am

    Tipper–First of all, when I saw Bobby Dale I thought–“Oh boy! I’m going to get to play tattle tale and reveal that he’s a practicing physician (who once helped me with a nasty infection I picked up at a convention), but then he stole my thunder by telling you that in his question. Bobby is a humble, down-to-earth guy (notice he didn’t say “I’m Dr. Dale”), a dedicated outdoorsman, and one of those common sense types who realizes that there’s real merit in a lot of old-time folk wisdom as it applies to medicine. I’m sure that in addition to sheer curiosity he’s looking at this as a learning experience.
    Brother Don may weigh in on this, but he had terrible and frequent earaches as a youngster. Mom used hot water bottles and sweet oil (I’m not exactly sure what “sweet oil” is although I’m guessing it’s just virgin olive oil). The sweet oil does help a bit and I’ve used it on more than one occasion as an adult when I felt twinges of pain in my ear, usually as part of a general onset of a sinus infection.
    I was usually pretty hard on Don, being his older brother, but I’m in B. Ruth’s corner when it comes to seeing a small child suffer with an earache, because Don surely did suffer.
    Jim Casada

  • Reply
    March 12, 2015 at 9:33 am

    Mom was a firm believer in the sweet oil treatment. Dad also smoked Prince Albert and wasted no time lighting one up so he could blow smoke in my ears. As I mentioned before, the groundhog grease was a treatment I dreaded and sometimes made me keep my suffering to myself. I have often wondered how the groundhog was so readily availabe at the onset of an earache. I’m surprised Pap didn’t mention the groundhog grease remedy.

  • Reply
    March 12, 2015 at 9:18 am

    As a child I had ear infections all the time actually have hearing lose in one ear because of it.. Blowing smoke in my ear was done as a child but I don’t remember it ever helping. The only thing that has ever prevented the infection, was peroxide once a week or so, I didn’t find this out until after My Wife and I married.. The Doctor I went to xrayed my ear and said my tubes were clogged and to keep them bowled out with a mixture of vinegar and peroxide a mixture of about half and half.. If I go by this it works.. If I wait and forget and don’t catch it in time, Well you know the rest of the story.. I can right a book on ear infections the pain and sleepless nights as a child and it would have been nice to have known about the peroxide..

  • Reply
    Richard Beauchamp
    March 12, 2015 at 8:47 am

    Tipper I have one for you , my Great Grandma swore by the oil from Betty Bugs. This was her name for a big black bug about 2 inches long she found in old rotton logs. they had a joint between the head and the body and this joint had a couple of drops of oily looking liquid in it. She would break the joint and get the oil in a tea spoon and warm it by holding a kitchen match under the spoon and put that in my ear. I thought it worked, because I thought she was a miracle worker.

  • Reply
    Dan O'Connor
    March 12, 2015 at 8:03 am

    The music player works great. I am a Mac user with OS 10.8.5 using Firefox 36.0.

  • Reply
    March 12, 2015 at 7:53 am

    I was cursed with many earaches growing up, but nobody ever tried blowing in my ear. My earliest memory was an old Company Doctor Bennett showing up late at night after seeing another patient in the area. He looked in my ear and confirmed badly infected ear. He either gave me a penicillin shot or prescription–can’t recall. Later earaches were treated with Mom wrapping a very warm iron in a towel for me to hold on my ear, with sweet oil applied–this really helped. A tonsillectomy early in life seemed to help get rid of the source of infection. I had bursted ear drum more than once. Yes, Tipper, they are painful.

  • Reply
    Henry Horton
    March 12, 2015 at 7:48 am

    Re the use of urine. I read years ago that during the Civil war when other antiseptics where not available available urine was applied to wounds to prevent infection. I can attest from my own experience that when nothing else seemed to stop inflammation this worked. Fresh urine is sterile and full of salt so it would have a drawing effect.

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    March 12, 2015 at 7:43 am

    When I was a child we went on a camping trip to the beach. I got an ear ache from spending too much time in the water. My mother heated a big piece of coral by the campfire, wrapped a towel around it and I put my head/ear on it. The heat brought me some relief. They took me to the doctor when we got home. The warm heat helped.

  • Reply
    Roy Pipes
    March 12, 2015 at 7:23 am

    When paregoric was available without a prescription it was often used for an earache as a drop or two was placed in the ear. Probably the opium in paregoric.

  • Reply
    b. Ruth
    March 12, 2015 at 5:20 am

    I have heard of all these remedies. Of those sweet oil and warm compresses were the ones I remember my parents used.
    Since my earaches usually accompanied a severe sore throat or strep…it was off to the doctor for a round of antibiotics, to prevent further infections.
    I never had a abscess in my ear to the point that it burst on it’s own… but if you did, I can imagine the relief when the pressure of it drained.
    I had a doctor drain one once.
    The tiny hole in my ear finally closed years later. I didn’t know it was there until I started having earaches, after a flight to San Diego and back. He said it was exacerbated from the pressure in my ears from the flight? Not sure about that, I think I had an infection again…
    I haven’t had a ear infection in years! “Let me knock on wood…”
    Two pains that hurt more than anything is to have or see a small child with a earache or a toothache….OUCH!
    Thanks Tipper,
    PS…It was warm here yesterday, and we saw a glint of sunshine. My flowers are popping out of the ground after all this warming!

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