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Treatment for itching and shyness

by Hilary Stace

I was born with skin which was often too tight, too brittle, too burning and too itchy. My mother spent a great deal of time trying to alleviate the effects of my eczema including regular bedtime rituals of which I have vivid sensory memories, even though I was still a preschooler.

Before bed my limbs, body and face were smeared with viscous black coal tar ointment that smelt like freshly laid asphalt. (I could never understand why my father’s coal tar soap was orange and smelled nicer). My mother then wrapped me in yards of damp bandage. Lastly she tied cotton mitts on my hands with ribbons.

Then she would get a large bottle with a sugar-encrusted rim from the cupboard. The metallic spoon taste mingled with the sickly but bitter Phenergan syrup. Two special bedtime companions were my soft toys Flopsy Mopsy (a rabbit of course) and Kittie. Their original colours were indiscernible under their patina of grease from the oozing coal tar.

Whether from the medical conditions or otherwise, I was a chronically shy child and my mother struggled to disentangle my fingers from her skirt when leaving me at Playcentre or with friends. So beside the bottle of Phenergan was another brown glass container which contained large green tablets. They were braveness pills and the longer you sucked them the braver you got.

So what was the science behind these treatments? Coal tar is a liquid by product from the process of turning coal into a product called coke which was used in the steel industry. Its skin-soothing properties have been known and widely used for at least 150 years, despite its strong smell and reputation for staining. It was standard emollient treatment for eczema when I was young in the days before steroids were mainstream. There still seems to be uncertainty about why it works including a theory that it limits DNA reproduction. The grease is smeared on skin damp from the water of a bath or shower and helps keeps that moisture in. Wet bandages prolong the effect.

My father’s coal tar was made from the same product but was sold for its antiseptic properties and somehow the smell and colour were altered to be much more pleasant. That soap is still produced, although no longer allowed without prescription in many countries as coal tar has been implicated in skin cancer. (I have had a melanoma removed and never linked it to those years of coal tar; my father used the soap for 84 years with no ill effect). The soap is now produced in Turkey with tea tree oil as its vital ingredient.

Phenergan (Promethazine hydrochloride) was developed over 60 years ago as an antihistamine for those with allergies, rashes, hives, nausea and motion sickness. Histamine is produced by the body as a reaction to person-specific allergens ‒ foreign substances which the body encounters by inhalation, ingesting or through the skin ‒ and antihistamines help reduce the histamine allergic reaction. Phenergan’s main side effect is drowsiness, which suited my mother. The medicine has a variety of names these days and is administered as syrup or tablet. It is now not recommended for children under two, nor be used for no longer than ten days in a row. The dose for children is five mls with a maximum of fifteen mls in 24 hours. I remember my dose as at least one large spoon, sometimes two. But my mother is no longer around to ask.

My mother was astute with her use of braveness pills and their placebo effect. She found large pleasant tasting sweets (not identifiable as such by me), with a hint of sherbet and peppermint and which required a lot of sucking, enhancing and prolonging the placebo aspect. They worked well and I have used them successfully with my own children.

As a shy, eczematic child, I was fortunate to have a mother who was both patient and innovative.

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