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Remedies for cavities and teeth infections

People did not frequently clean their teeth in past. They recall in Allo (N) that people only cleaned their mouths every now and then, nearly always when a tooth hurt or when the doctor recommended doing so. They often washed it out with water and vinegar. They also used products purchased at the apothecary's.

Cavities were the main cause of toothache, particularly when they were sufficiently advanced to reach the nerve. The practices discovered were aimed at relieving the pain caused as it is obvious there were no folk remedies to cure them.

Apart from the pain killers available in each era, some of which have been used for so long that their commercial name has become the general term in use, such is the case of aspirin and Optalidon, other different remedies were used to relieve toothache, ranging from those that may have an empirical base to purely magical ones. They are described below.

Mouthwashes and poultices

Alcohol (Eugi-N), usually in the form of a spirit, has been regularly used to relieve the pain caused by cavities: brandy (Bernedo, Ribera Alta-A; Abadiano, Bermeo, Durango, Gorozika, Nabarniz-B; Elosua-G; Aoiz, Goizueta-N), anise (Goizueta, Tiebas-N) or fruit brandy and marc (Ribera Alta; Tiebas).

Chewing tobacco was recommended in Amézaga de Zuya (A) and in Bedarona (B).

In Goizueta (N), an infusion of plantiña plantain, sweetened with honey, was prepared to relieve this pain. It was used as a mouth wash or poultices were applied. It was sometimes drunk. Ribwort plantain, Plantago lanceolata, with narrower leaves, was used for men, and common plantain, Plantago major, for women.

Aromatic substances and steam inhalations

In Apellániz (A), those pains were relieved by inhaling an ivy concoction until the worms that caused the toothache were killed[1].

In Zerain (G), steam inhalations of a rosemary and willow concoction were used. Part of a branch used for the St. John's feast day would also be boiled and the steam inhaled.

Applying heat

In Hondarribia (G), when someone had toothache or an abscess, a rag or wadding attached with a black handkerchief to the head was normally used. Bran was heated and applied to the cheek to stop toothache in Elosua (G) and in Sangüesa.

Applying cold

In Amézaga de Zuya (A), it was recommended to place a cold axe or a key to the cheek, or failing that any other metal object, to relieve the pain. In Pipaón (A), a cold axe was put on the part of the face where the tooth hurt. In Bidegoian (G), an iron object was placed on the jaw and it was usual to resort to the axe blade.

Remedies for abscesses and other inflammations

In Apellániz (A), it was said the smoke produced by burning elder flowers blessed by St. John would make an abscess disappear. Applying a fig stewed in wine would also cure them. In Montaña Alavesa, elder flower smoke would get rid of toothache and abscesses[2].

Remedies with garlic

In Elgoibar (G), a clove of garlic was placed on the ulnar artery of the opposite hand to where the pain was. It would be held in place using a handkerchief until the pain had gone. In Zerain (G), a clove of garlic would be tied to the part of the wrist where the pulse is, specifically on the wrist of the contrary side to the pain, in order to stop the toothache.

Other practices

According to another person surveyed from Carranza (B), when someone had toothache, a bunch of nettles would be picked and used to rub the lower limbs, which caused “the blood to flow down to the legs and get rid of the pain”.

Folk beliefs

In Obanos (N), people believed that nuts with three shells avoided this type of pain. Iribarren also discovered that if you kept in your pocket a nut with three segments or a small bug known as nuncabuscalo as it was difficult to find, the toothache would immediately disappear[3].

Extracting teeth and molars

Teeth pulling at home

In the past, teeth were frequently pulled at home. Yet that was not the case with all teeth, but rather the ones that were loose and particularly children’s milk teeth. The most usual procedure was with the help of a piece of string. There were some people who could pull out their own tooth, but it was usual for another person to pull it, particularly in the case of children.

There was quite a widespread of peculiar procedure, involving the string attached to the tooth being tied at the other end to a fixed support, so the patient had go backwards to pull out the tooth, but if fear of pain stopped them from doing so, the other person would slap them so they jerked backwards.

Teeth extractions by skilled people, haginateratzaileak

Apart from what has been described so far, which would be considered teeth pulling at home, people skilled in this area were used. In the oldest case, there were neighbours that knew what how to do this and had an appropriate tool even though its main use was not for this. Barbers were other people who would carry out this task in the past. Teeth-pullers would also go to the villages. Later on, people would resort to practitioners or ministers, general practitioners in the small towns and more recently to dentists. Nowadays, it is usual to go to the dentist which often means travelling to towns of a certain size, which is where they usually have their clinics.

There are now many specialists who have clinics which everyone attends as that has become commonplace. Great importance is now given to looking after one's teeth and the solution is no longer to pull them out as in the past. The emphasis is on saving the tooth. This concern begins in childhood and not only to prevent tooth loss, but also to ensure they grow correctly.

  1. The widespread belief that toothache was caused by a worm was collected and studied by BLACK, Medicina popular, op. cit., pp. 43-45.
  2. Idem, “Folklore de la Montaña Alavesa”, cit., p. 27.
  3. IRIBARREN, Retablo de curiosidades..., op. cit., p. 73.