Got allergies? How about a bubble helmet? Here are 10 strange allergy treatments throughout history

Before allergy medicine, there were a whole slew of bizarre ways to treat symptoms of what was known in the late 1800s as "hay fever." The term "allergy" didn't exist until 1906, says Theresa MacPhail, a medical anthropologist and author of Allergic: Our Irritated Bodies in a Changing World.

Today, we are fortunate enough to have reliable methods to diagnose and treat allergies. But history shows a slew of well-meaning but usually misguided practitioners who attempted all kinds of cures to treat seasonal allergies. From nose amputations to horse blood, here are 10 of the strangest.

These treatments range from nonsensical to downright dangerous. Please, don't try these at home.

1. Partial nose removal

A radical treatment in the late 1800s was to remove part of the nose to alleviate allergies. (Getty Images)
A radical treatment in the late 1800s was to remove part of the nose to alleviate allergies. (Getty Images)

In 1883, E. Schmiegelow, a rhinologist (ear, nose and throat specialist) from Copenhagen, visited a colleague who claimed to cure hay fever by removing part of the nose membrane. Schmiegelow described the procedure, called galvano-cauterization, as “radical" and concluded that the surgery went “too far” and was being used “indiscriminately” without sufficient evidence that it was effective.

“Physically removing all or a portion of your nose will not change your body’s reaction to allergies, especially since you’ll still be inhaling the allergens one way or another. Plus, you might not look good in pictures anymore,” Dr. Viet Pham, MD, an ENT with The ENT & Allergy Centers of Texas, tells Yahoo Life.

2. Smoking

Smoking was recommended as a treatment for allergies as recently as 1934. (Getty Images)
Smoking was recommended as a treatment for allergies as recently as 1934. (Getty Images)

Some ancient Indian physicians in the fifth century recommended smoking stramonium, which is derived from the thorn apple, to help relieve the symptoms of asthma. Later, English colonizers adopted the practice. While stramonium is known to relieve pain, it has “toxic properties” and is not recommended for allergy treatment today.

Nevertheless, the belief that smoking could help allergies persisted. According to MacPhail, smoking was recommended as a treatment for allergies as recently as 1934 in the United States.

Dr. Tania Elliott, an allergist and chief medical officer of Virtual Care at Ascension, tells Yahoo Life these practitioners had the right concept, but the wrong execution. "Take away the smoking of substances, and let's focus on the importance of deep breathing to help expand lung capacity and improve asthma symptoms," she says. "Studies have shown that yoga, which incorporates deep breathing, does improve symptoms for asthma patients."

Just to be sure no one takes up smoking to relieve allergy symptoms, Pham adds: “beyond the multitude of other negative health consequences that come with it, smoking would actually worsen allergies, with all that aerosolized irritant exposure. There is absolutely no benefit with smoking."

3. Bubble helmets

From horse blood to nose amputations to bubble helmets - there's a lot of weird treatments to relieve seasonal allergies throughout history. (Getty)
A British architect invented a bubble helmet in the 1980s to prevent seasonal allergies. He even sold a few hundred of the helmets. (Getty)

Yes, bubble helmets. Not so long ago, in the 1980s, Richard Hinchliffe, a British architect who suffered from allergies, invented a bubble helmet that he claimed protected allergy sufferers from pollen. The contraption contained a filter and made the wearer look like an astronaut. Hinchliffe sold hundreds of his contraptions, but they never became popular, for obvious reasons.

“Conceptually this works, by filtering out airborne pollen and other particulate matter,” says Elliott. However, for those who would like to avoid the bubble, Elliott adds that “Nowadays, you can wear a mask or use nasal filters.”

4. Cocaine

An engraving of a Victorian beauty smelling a perfume bottle.
A radical and unworkable suggestion that destroys the nasal membranes is to use cocaine. (Getty Images)

In 1886, Dr. E. Fletcher Ingles, a laryngologist, wrote that using cocaine to treat hay fever was “highly recommended.” He noted that patients experienced “unpleasant effects” and required “more and more” of the drug to find relief as time went on. Nevertheless, Ingles found the treatment “highly effective,” since none of the many patients he treated with cocaine experienced allergy symptoms the following summer. And there's a modern-day reason for that.

"The nerves and tissues in their nasal passages were completely destroyed,” says Elliott. “Cocaine is an extremely harmful substance. ... In the nose, it also wreaks havoc, destroying nasal tissue and even leading to holes in the nasal septum." The takeaway: Find a good over-the-counter medicine to treat seasonal allergies.

5. Ice bag treatment

Ice has been used since ancient times to treat allergy symptoms. (Getty Images)
Ice has been used since ancient times to treat allergy symptoms. (Getty Images)

Doctors have used cold temperatures, or cryotherapy, to treat allergy symptoms and other medical conditions for thousands of years. This simple treatment goes back to ancient Greece. The use of ice to treat allergies has been proven to be effective in reducing pain and increasing the feeling of well-being.

Today, doctors may still recommend using ice. “Ice can help with allergy symptoms, especially itch,” says Elliott. “Itching and pain go along the same nerve pathways, so you typically can't feel both at once. When you are icing something, the ‘pain’ pathway gets activated, which means you don't experience itching,” she explains.

Pham says while ice can be effective in reducing allergy symptoms, the effect “is only momentary and does not actually address the underlying problem."

6. Rhubarb and rest

An engraving of a rhubarb plant.
Rhubarb was one ingredient in a complicated cocktail that was reputed in the early 1900s to reduce allergy symptoms. (Getty Images)

Rhubarb and rest is not at all like Netflix and chill. In 1903, Dr. Alvin Wood Chase published Dr. Chase’s Old-Time Home Remedies. He recommended using rhubarb to treat hay fever. Chase opined that rhubarb would be most effective if the allergy sufferer also “kept quiet for a few days” and took quinine, a drug used to kill parasites, along with paregoric, a drug used to stop diarrhea. While there is no evidence that rhubarb or other remedies he recommended can help with allergies, Elliott says “there are some natural remedies that have shown benefit, including butterbur, a naturally occurring antihistamine.”

As for Chase’s recommendation to remain quiet, Dr. Pham says this is unlikely to help. “Candidly, resting and staying quiet without actively taking care of your allergies simply means you’ll be sitting there, suffering in silence."

7. 'Anitoxin' in horse blood

An engraving of a horse at full canter.
In 1904, horse blood injected with pollen toxins was marketed to the public, in what may have been one of the first attempts at immunotherapy. (Getty Images)

According to Gregg Mitman, author of Breathing Space: How Allergies Shape our Lives and Landscapes, in 1904, Dr. William Dunbar developed a treatment he believed would relieve the symptoms of hay fever. Dunbar and his assistant injected horses with isolated toxic compounds found in pollen, diluted in water to create what he claimed was an antitoxin that could treat allergies. Dunbar marketed this serum as Pollantin and sold it as a liquid, powder and salve.

Elliott says that Dunbar was probably experimenting with an allergy “vaccine.” This is similar to a treatment used today, called allergen immunotherapy. “Today, we take the major protein that results in allergies in very diluted doses, and either inject it or create drops for under the tongue, and slowly increase the dose over time. This can cure people of their allergies,” Elliott tells Yahoo Life. Pham emphasizes that “conventional immunotherapy, such as allergy shots or allergy drops,” are much more effective without the “bloodcurdling” reaction many are likely to have at the thought of being injected with a horse’s blood.

8. Parentectomy (separating children from their parents)

An engraving of an early 19th-century mother and child.
Parentectomy — or removing children from their homes for six months or more — was thought to help a child's asthma and was practiced well into the 1980s. (Getty Images)

In the 1930s, Dr. Maury Peshkin, chief of Mount Sinai Hospital’s Children’s Allergy Clinic, believed that asthma was a psychological condition. According to Mitman, Peshkin believed that children needed to be separated from their parents to restore “physicochemical balance.” He called this process a parentectomy. Mitman says that by the 1950s, this theory was widely endorsed. Over-protective mothers were thought to cause childhood asthma. Practitioners routinely removed children from their homes for six months or more if they were thought to be “psychologically allergic” to their environments, particularly their parents.

Elliott says that the children who improved after being separated from their parents probably got better because they were removed “from indoor allergies in their home, such as dust mites, pets, cockroaches, mold, or mice.”

While children often had improved outcomes with their asthma after taking part it parentectomy, for many it took a long-term emotional toll on their lives. As one former patient told Denver's city magazine in 2021 about the experience, "there was no real parent–child interaction ever again, she said. "We were successful victims.”

9. Booze

A Victorian engraving of a woman's hand holding a small goblet of liquid.
In the early 1900s, alcohol was thought to help allergy symptoms. Don't get excited. It's not true. (Getty Images)

According to MacPhail, in the early 1900s, Dr. Samuel Feinberg recommended alcoholic drinks as a treatment for allergy symptoms. The reality is that “many alcoholic beverages contain high levels of histamine, which … would actually worsen allergies,” according to Pham. However, he adds that “you may temporarily forget about your allergies during happy hour,” which could provide temporary relief.

10. Egg whites

An engraving of a wicker basket of eggs.
Eyes itchy and inflamed? An old home remedy recommended egg whites — which is not endorsed by allergists. (Getty Images)

For inflammation of the eyes, a common allergy symptom, Dr. Chase’s Old-Time Home Remedies, recommends heating the white of an egg in a tin cup mixed with powdered alum, a substance used primarily for pickling. In order for the remedy to be effective, Chase claimed it was necessary to fold the mixture into a cloth before placing the substance over the eyes. Chase claims to have used this precise remedy “just this way, upon my own eye, with entire success.” He stated that he believed the remedy would work just as well for sprains, although he noted that he had “not sued it upon them yet.”

According to Dr. Elliott, there is “no data to support this outside of hearsay.” Pham says that this treatment “is more likely to irritate your eyes than actually effectively treat allergies."