8 ‘Traditional Medicines’ Ilonggos Grew Up With

| September 24th, 2015

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Growing up in the countryside in the 1990s has its perks: one, you were equipped with basic knowledge on herbal plants and alternative medicine once you come of age because in cases of emergency, you had no doctor to call and worse, you even had no phone; two, your pain threshold tends to be higher than most people because the nearest hospital—with only a few doctors on duty, mind you—was a couple of hours away so you had to pull yourself together until treatment is available.

So, barrio people like us learned to look for medical relief on our own, and mainly because of necessity. Some were helpful but some were, well, moronic. But of course, I’m writing here to give you a primer on nostalgic pharmacology that Ilonggos still use today!

1. Efficascent Oil (Methyl Salicylate, Camphor + Menthol)

Traditional Ilonggo Medicines - Project Iloilo
Who doesn’t remember Efficascent Oil? Every Ilonggo who grew up with their lolas can recognize this green, minty oil in a small bottle that gives relief for back pain, stiff neck, muscle and joint pains, insect bites and minor sprains. My late Lola would always reach out for this whenever I get a stomachache. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but there’s something very therapeutic about this kind of touch therapy.

2. Vicks Vapor Rub (Camphor, Menthol, Eucalyptus Oil)

Traditional Ilonggo Medicines - Project Iloilo
This was my run-to medicine in grade school! It was so important to me that every time it went missing, my mom knew exactly where this tiny blue thing was; it was either in my school uniform pocket or bag. Growing up with migraine, I was desperate to reach out for any form of relief when it used to strike me in school or wherever I may be. Since Vicks smells like that popular mint candy called “Storck” in the 80s and 90’s, it has become my tiny, comfortable sanctuary.

Ten years later in pharmacology class, I learned that Vicks wasn’t supposed to be placed in the nostrils, as the ingredients could irritate the nasal lining and cause the body to produce more mucus to protect the airway. So, imagine my astonishment after knowing about this fact! The one thing that gave me comfort for years can apparently narrow the airways of the children! So, do check out the warnings in drug labels the next time you buy medicine since they are written there for a reason

3. Crushed Penicillin Tablet

Traditional Ilonggo Medicines - Project Iloilo
Many Ilonggos claim that the crushed Penicillin tablet is effective, though that’s not to say it’s not reckless. Penicillin is a broad spectrum antibiotic indicated for treatment of infections. It is available in vial and tablet/capsule forms, which means it is supposed to be taken orally or intravenously for 7-to-14 days. It is definitely NOT supposed to be crushed and poured directly into an open wound. However, this kind of treatment was very common in the barrios and was one that was administered to me more than once due to careless bike riding. It was once given to me and two days later, voila, the wound dried up! Sounds magical right?

But then, that is just too wrong from a medical perspective! Penicillin in pill form is too concentrated to be poured directly to an open wound, and it can get directly through the blood vessels because of the increased absorption of the medication. The worst “what-if” would be: What if the person who received this “direct treatment” is hypersensitive to Penicillin, as in most cases of anti-infectives? As it stands, it is every hospital’s SOP to conduct skin testing before administering antibiotics since knowledgeable medical professionals know how dangerous a simple drug allergy can become. Also, since penicillin is a prescription drug, then you really have to take it as “prescribed” by your doctor. So, it’s either via mouth or via IV. Period.

4. Pasaw (Pseuderanthemum reticulatum)

Pasaw is a purplish leaf effective in relieving fever and headache. If you are not familiar with how it is used, then imagine this: five-to-nine leaves are set on the forehead with a folded handkerchief that is tied tightly at the back of the head, which should hold the leaves together. Just like with over-the-counter medicines, a new set of leaves are replaced if the fever hasn’t subsided after four to six hours.

As a child, I was excited to see how the leaves would look like after they “absorbed” my fever. They looked soaked with moisture (which was probably from the sweat). Just like most kids my age back then, I was not a fan of Paracetamol since I associated medicines with “bitter taste”. Pasaw was my mom and grandma’s alternative, and I couldn’t be any happier for it.

5. Balunggay (Moringa olifera)

Most Ilonggos often consider balunggay as an ingredient to laswa and tinola. On the other hand, this is the “monarch” for breastfeeding mothers looking to increase the milk production of their bodies. I have eaten tons of it during my post-partum, from balunggay soup to balunggay smoothies, and even balunggay cookies!

For many older Ilonggos, they consider balunggay as the barrios’ “Betadine” for treating wounds. The usual process goes like this: the leaves are crushed simply by using the palm of the hand, with the aim of “squeezing” its juices out until they can be poured directly into the wound.

Before you answer it, then let me make this clear: yes, it is very unsterile. The elderly would even use their saliva to “soften” the leaves if they couldn’t even extract the juice out fully back then, which is gross! The fact that it was another person’s saliva getting in direct contact with an open wound makes it a perfect system for spreading communicable diseases, especially the ones transmissible through body fluids. But in fairness, I do remember the crushed balunggay working out quite well for my cuts because of its anti-infective properties.

6. Tawas (Alum)

Tawas is a chemically hydrated aluminum potassium sulfate that has a categorical crystal shape, and was commonly used by Ilonggos back then as a deodorant. Its prevalence in the 90s was so trivial that it was openly sold outside churches, parks and public markets. Because of its availability in most households, it became an easy-grab cure for mouth sores.

In a study published in the Indian Journal of Medical Research in 1996, tawas was found to inhibit the growth of pathogenic organisms; hence, its quick healing mechanism when applied to mouth sores with concomitant bacterial infection. I swear the searing pain when you put it directly in your mouth sore will make you pee and wish you didn’t do it. Nevertheless, I can bear sixty seconds of severe pain than not being able to eat for days due to my canker sores. So yes, the pain is really worth the benefit.

7. Bayabas (Psidium guajava or Guava) Decoction

Traditional Ilonggo Medicines - Project Iloilo
Bayabas has been a traditional antiseptic wash among rural inhabitants. By boiling the leaves picked from a guava tree, the solution is used to facilitate the healing of wounds and cuts.

Being one of the ten approved herbal plants of the Department of Health, bayabas has anti-helminthic and antibacterial effects. Some people use boiled guava leaves as a regular hand and feet cleanser, and none proves its uses more than being used as a foot soak for the treatment of farmers suffering from lan-ag (a local name for skin infection of the feet after overexposure to water). Around two decades ago, the mothers in my hometown (including mine) made it an evening habit to wash their children’s feet with bayabas decoction as part of their kids’ pre-bedtime bath. Of course, this local elixir is also known for being useful for other purposes like the treatment of tooth decay and gum infection.

8. Merthiolate (Benzalkonium chloride)

Traditional Ilonggo Medicines - Project Iloilo
Martayolet”, as my old neighbor used to call it, is meant to be used as a topical antiseptic for external use, but all I knew when I was a teenager was that it was a solution for nails to achieve that pinkish glow, which is the shining product of hours and hours of pedicures and/or manicures. This may be a “simplistic” use for merthiolate, but there’s a logic behind how that solution is used traditionally here; it prevents infection in case of minor cuts obtained during the removal of ingrown nails during the mani-pedi procedure.

As the world of medicine evolves, we get exposed to newer, more effective, and scientifically proven treatments that we start questioning the old ways (I’m guilty of this in so many ways). But there’s this thought that crossed my mind numerous times: “If we are to take the place of our ancestors 50-100 years ago, given that medical care was limited and most medicines weren’t discovered yet, I bet we would try the not-yet-proven ways to save a life.” I am thankful for these centuries-old medical innovations that couldn’t be explained by science. Our grandparents may not explain it in the most scientific or savviest ways, but if you scrutinize it, those things I have written above are essentially science in its simplest form.

To close this article on a lighter note, I am proud to say I still have Vicks in my bag and Efficascent Oil in my medicine cabinet at home. And at this very moment, I am thinking of picking up some bayabas leaves and make a therapeutic foot soak. Ah, I miss the smell of the mountains!

So, do you have any “Ilonggo medicine” that you used to remember from your childhood? Do share it with us in the comments section below!

Photos by the author

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Sheeb Guazo

Sheeb Guazo is a writer for Project Iloilo.


  • angimonanay

    Luy-a or ginger is the definitive Ilonggo cure-all. the arbolaryo would also use luy-a for almost any ailment and ward off bad spirits (tuyaw)