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Historically, individuals have used coal oil, also referred to as kerosene, as an antiseptic, decongestant and as a pesticide. The substance was readily available and less expensive than a conventional visit to the local physician. In some communities, the closest physician may have been miles away and families without transportation developed home remedies to treat non-emergency conditions. The oily substance is not without possible hazardous adverse effects and is highly flammable.
Believed to possess disinfectant properties, people commonly used coal oil on abrasions, cuts or other open wounds. The substance reportedly stopped bleeding and prevented infection. Individuals applied coal oil topically by dabbing the oil onto the skin or by soaking the affected hand or foot in the offensive liquid. A compress soaked in the oil and applied to the rectum was thought to cure hemorrhoids.
Coal oil was also thought to be effective as treatment against fungal infections of the skin. Individuals typically applied the liquid to the skin once or twice a day over an extended time period to cure ringworm or athlete’s foot fungus. Preparations containing the oil were also used as liniments to alleviate discomfort from muscle sprains or strains.
Many people recall using coal oil for the treatment of colds, flu and pneumonia. To calm a cough, individuals rubbed the substance directly on the throat. The substance was mixed with melted lard and applied to the chest for respiratory ailments. The oil was sometimes mixed with turpentine and camphor. A cloth was then applied, which covered the mixture under clothing. A teaspoon of sugar having a few drops of coal oil mixed in was another common remedy for coughs.
A once popular cure for head lice involved soaking the hair with coal oil. Some people also applied the greasy substance to the hair using a fine toothed comb. The topical home remedy was left in the hair for a specified amount of time, which ensured killing all of the insects. Individuals would then wash the hair, which reportedly removed the lice and eggs along with the hair’s natural oils. The treatment would be reapplied as needed.
Besides being highly flammable, coal oil is highly irritating to tissue. Inhaling the pungent fumes may cause respiratory irritation and pneumonia like symptoms. The toxic fumes may also affect the central nervous system, producing dizziness, drowsiness and restlessness. The substance typically dries and causes burning irritation of the skin. Redness, itching and blistering may occur. When taken internally, individuals generally experience nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.