Vinegar is one of the greatest home remedies of all time. It's cheap, versatile and readily available in almost every household.
Most people use vinegar for pickling, marinating and making salad dressing. But readers of this column have pointed out that vinegar is helpful for any number of common problems.
Fungus infections don't seem to flourish in an acid environment, and doctors sometimes recommend acetic acid to discourage fungus. One ear-nose-and-throat specialist recommends a solution made from one part white vinegar to five parts tepid water for itching caused by fungus in the ear canal.
The ear is flushed gently three times a day, and the fungus usually responds. (It is important that the liquid be close to body temperature, as it could cause dizziness, discomfort or even damage if it were too cool or too warm.)
Another ear specialist prevents swimmer's ear by rinsing children's ears with a combination of half vinegar and half alcohol after they hop out of the pool.
One woman wrote that her granddaughter's pediatrician prescribed a one-third white vinegar soak, 15 to 20 minutes daily, for toenail fungus. Our reader tried it and her nail fungus cleared up.
One of our favorite vinegar remedies comes from a lifeguard who deals with lots of insect and jellyfish stings. He maintains that meat tenderizer mixed with vinegar to form a paste can help relieve the pain. The papain enzyme in the meat tenderizer presumably breaks down the venom.
There are dozens more testimonials to the power of vinegar, including its use against warts, nighttime leg cramps and even dry skin. Lately a number of people have written to ask about drinking vinegar mixed with grape or apple juice as a remedy for arthritis.
We don't know of any scientific evidence to support this treatment, but the idea of drinking a teaspoon of vinegar in water was popularized by Dr. D. C. Jarvis in his best-selling 1958 book, "Folk Medicine" (reissued in 1985).
We heard from another reader, "Dr. Jarvis was a neighbor of mine in Barre, Vt. He was an eye, ear, nose and throat man mostly. But more than that, he was a scholar and musician. He learned to read modern Greek by borrowing Greek newspapers from the shoeshine man, and founded a young people's orchestra. If money was lacking for an instrument, he found it, even out of his own pocket. He was an ardent organic gardener and he always remembered the full names of both my children. He made more money from the book than he ever did practicing medicine."
Dr. Jarvis didn't claim to invent the use of vinegar in water as a tonic, but rather was reporting the practices of Vermont farm families. He had observed that vinegar added to a dairy herd's rations would improve its health and make it more productive.
According to Dr. Jarvis, Vermonters apparently figured it would be good for them too.
Perhaps someday science will tell us if the old farmers and their wives were right.
Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist. Dr. Teresa Graedon is a medical anthropologist and nutrition expert.