Folk Illnesses and Remedies in Latino CommunitiesPosted by Marcia Carteret, M. Ed. in Culture-Specific Topics, Latino Cultures
What is a Folk Illness?
Folk illnesses are health beliefs and practices shaped by the cultural conventions of a specific group of people. Folk illnesses (sometimes also referred to as lay health beliefs) have specific causes, preventions, and cures based on wider theories of illness (e.g., humoral, Ayurvedic, biomedical), but may also include local health beliefs and values not related to the major theories of illness. Because folk illnesses and remedies are shaped by the way people in specific cultural groups think about the body in health and illness, common practices vary significantly from diagnoses and treatments of the modern Western medical community. Folk illnesses tend to carry religious overtones as well as a range of symbolic meanings with social and psychological dimensions. A person suffering from a folk illness is often seen as expressing emotional distress through the physical body. Such distress may arise from conflicts within the family, or from the larger social world that the individual inhabits. Perhaps the patient failed to observe social norms or perform essential rituals. Or maybe his illness has been caused by an evil spirit. Traditional healers within a particular culture are trusted to recognize, interpret, and treat folk illnesses using therapies that are congruent with the particular lay concepts of illness that underpin the condition. It is important to keep in mind that in the US, a family’s belief in specific folk illnesses and traditional healing remedies depends on such factors as ethnicity, national origin, region, and levels of acculturation. In Latino communities in the US, four of the most common folk illnesses are empacho, susto, Mal Ojo (evil eye), and Mollera Caida (fallen fontanelle). A brief description of each is given here followed by some useful links with more extensive and detailed information about Latino folk illnesses and cures. Several books on the subject are also recommended.
A form of stomach upset which is believed to be caused by undigested food getting stuck to the walls of the stomach or intestines causing an obstruction. It is thought to result of dietary practices including excessive eating, not chewing food completely, consuming spoiled foods, eating at the wrong time of day, or combining the wrong foods. Symptoms include anorexia, vomiting, diarrhea, bloating, cramps, and stomachache. Treatment includes dietary restrictions, herbal teas, abdominal massage with warm oil, and pinching the skin on the back and pulling it until it pops. Most treatments for empacho are harmless. However, multiple cases of lead toxicity have been documented among children whose empacho was treated with powdered folk remedies (called greta, azarcòn, or albayalde) containing high concentrations of lead oxide.1-2
A “fright sickness” is caused by a frightening or traumatic experience that temporarily scares a person’s spirit from their body. Symptoms include chill, lethargy, anxiety, depression, insomnia, and irritability. Culturally stressed adults (women more often than men) are most likely to suffer from susto, although children may also be afflicted. The onset of the disease generally follows a sudden frightening experience such as an accident, a fall, witnessing a relative’s sudden death, or any other potentially dangerous event. Research shows that knowledge of the existence of susto is a major contributing factor in improving the condition. The treatment includes herbal teas, covering the face with a cloth and sprinkling holy water, and spitting a mouthful of water or alcohol into the patient’s face unexpectedly, and cleansing ceremonies called limpieza performed by spiritual healers called curanderos.
Mal de Ojo
Translates into evil eye and is caused by a person with a “strong eye” who admires a child without touching them. This can occur intentionally or unintentionally, and though it sounds as if it is inflicted through malice, opposite is the case. The illness is believed to occur because a spell has been placed on the child by a person who secretly admires and covets him or her. To counteract the effect of the admiration, the admirer must touch the object of such strong admiration. The strong eyes are believed to “heat up” the child’s blood, resulting in symptoms such as fever, inconsolable crying, diarrhea, vomiting, aches and pains and a gassy stomach. Mal Ojo is one of the most commonly reported folk illnesses reported by Mexican parents. Treatment consists of taking a child to a folk healer for herbal remedies and ritual cures such as passing an egg over the body and then placing it in a bowl under the child’s pillow overnight. If the egg is cooked in the morning, then the child had “mal de ojo.” Sometimes a lemon, chili pepper or rue is used in place of an egg. Some Latino parents place an amulet on infants, known as azabache, which is worn on a necklace or bracelet and is believed to protect against mal ojo. One of the most common amulets is an adorned seed that looks like a deer’s eye called ojo de venado. Necklaces and bracelets may place infants at risk for strangulation and other accidents. A safe and culturally sensitive alternative is to pin the azabache on the inside of a garment.3
Translates as sunken fontanel and is believed to be caused by pulling a baby away from the breast or bottle too quickly, having the baby fall to the ground or carrying the baby incorrectly. These actions are believed to make a baby’s soft palate sink in so it has trouble feeding and swallowing. Symptoms include poor suck, irritability, sunken eyes, vomiting or diarrhea. Treatments include pushing on the baby’s palate with a finger, holding the baby upside down over a pan of water and slapping the bottoms of his feet, or applying a poultice to the fontanel. The symptoms of mollera caida should alert the clinician to possible severe dehydration. Treatments involving holding babies upside down can be dangerous or even fatal and parents should be made aware of this.4 References for This Article: 1.) Bose V. Vashnita, K. O’Loughlin BJ. Azarcon por empacho – another cause of lead toxicity. Pediatrics 1983;73:106-8. 2.) Center for Disease Control. Lead poisoning from Mexican folk remedies – California. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 1983;32;554-5 3.) Flores, G. Culture and the Patient-Physician Relationship. Journal of Peds 2000; 136:14-23