By Jacob E. Osterhout
October 3, 2019

Even the most squeamish parents can treat these common ailments without ever needing to leave the house.

My 4-year-old son has a particularly active imagination. On any given day, he’ll regale us with fantastical tales about dragons and superheroes and rocket ships. But no matter how implausible his stories are, they always maintain some connection to reality.

So when my wife, who is a pediatric anesthesiologist, came home one day and my son announced that there was a rock in his nose, she believed him even though she couldn’t see it. And when he said that a space alien had put it in his left nostril, she still believed him even though he is clearly not friends with any martians. And when our nanny said that she thought the rock was just a “hard booger,” my wife still believed my son even though we have pulled some rock-hard boogers out of those nostrils.

Had I, an average parent (at best) with no formal medical training, been the one to arrive home first during this medical crisis, we would have headed straight to the emergency room, where a doctor probably would have sedated my son and used forceps to pull out the offending rock in an uncomfortable, time-consuming and expensive procedure.

But my wife, and her 13 years of medical training, walked through that door and knew exactly what to do. She remembered a technique from medical school for removing a foreign object from a child’s nose called “the mother’s kiss.”

In essence, you plug the unaffected nostril and blow into the child’s mouth, hoping to force the foreign object to pop out — as illustrated in this video.

[Read about how to tame lice, pinkeye and other common childhood plagues.]

“By blowing in the mouth, which is connected to the nasal passage through the back of the throat, the air should force the bead or stone to come out the nostril,” said Dr. Lawrence Rosen, M.D., a pediatrician and founder of the Whole Child Center, an integrative private pediatric practice in Oradell, N.J. “It’s a lot gentler and more pleasant than going to the E.R. and having an instrument stuck up their nose.”

Of course, said Dr. Michael Patrick, M.D., a pediatric emergency medicine physician at Nationwide Children’s Hospital and assistant professor of clinical pediatrics at Ohio State University, any at-home medical procedure — including this one — can come with certain risks. “All the child has to do is potentially take a deep breath in and the rock could be sucked down into the lungs,” he said. “This could happen if they’re crying.”

But, said Dr. Rosen, this technique is generally safe and effective the majority of the time. “You won’t cause any significant harm if you try it once or twice,” he said, “but if your child develops any trouble breathing, you should go to the E.R.”

In the moment, my wife relied on her instinct and medical training as she hugged our son and spoke softly to him until he was calm and comfortable. Then she pinched the unclogged nostril, put her mouth over his and blew a short, quick breath.

Our son pulled back. “I felt it move!” he said.

On the second breath, a small pebble flew out of his left nostril and rattled across the floor. Without hesitation, my son grabbed the stone, ran to the back door and launched it far into our yard where, as he said, “it could never hurt anyone ever again.”

And that’s when I arrived home from work. My son stood on the back porch screaming triumphantly at something in the back of the yard, and my wife sat on the floor in the kitchen — her superhero outfit no longer visible.

What other secret doctor tricks was she keeping from me? To learn more, I spoke with half a dozen experts who revealed other simple at-home remedies for five common childhood conundrums, so that you can avoid a visit to the emergency room with your young ones — or at least make the trip more comfortable.

1. Nursemaid’s elbow.

A common injury in kids under 7, radial head subluxation — or nursemaid’s elbow — occurs when the elbow is pulled and partially dislocates because the bones, muscles and ligaments that hold the elbow joint together are still developing. It often occurs when a child is yanked suddenly by the hand or wrist. The main symptom is pain when the child moves her arm, which might cause her to hold it still by her side, or to not bend, rotate or use her arm at all. There are generally no other signs of swelling, bruising or serious injury.

Dr. Patrick recommended the supination-flexion technique, demonstrated in this video (fast-forward to 1:40 for the technique), as a simple way to reset a nursemaid’s elbow. With your child facing you, hold her affected elbow with one hand so that her upper arm and forearm are perpendicular to each other and her palm is facing the floor. Then, hold her hand as if you were giving her a handshake, straighten her arm and rotate her palm so that it’s facing the ceiling. Once her palm is facing up, bend her elbow so that her hand touches her shoulder.

Within minutes, your child should be able to raise her arm. If she’s not playing normally within 5 to 10 minutes, then it’s probably time to call a doctor.

2. Swimmer’s ear.

Otitis externa, or swimmer’s ear, is an inflammation of the outer part of the ear canal, which runs from the opening of the ear to the eardrum. This common childhood condition is often caused by water that remains in the ear after swimming, which can create a moist environment, perfect for the growth of bacteria, which can cause the inflammation. Symptoms typically include hearing loss, ear pain, itching, swelling and dizziness.

“Pediatricians see a lot of kids with swimmer’s ear during summer and it’s really painful,” said Dr. Rosen. “But it’s not really an ear infection as much as skin inflammation, so you can initially try to treat it without antibiotics.”

Dr. Rosen recommended putting three to four drops of apple cider vinegar into the affected ear three times a day. According to Dr. Rosen, the acidity of the vinegar should restore the normal pH balance of the ear canal and lessen the swelling.

Some websites might suggest mixing the apple cider vinegar with rubbing alcohol or using a blow dryer to remove all moisture from the ear, but Dr. Rosen does not. “I don’t recommend alcohol because it can really hurt when the skin is already irritated,” he said, “and I don’t recommend a blow dryer because parents can unwittingly burn a child’s ear this way.”

If your child’s ear doesn’t get better within 24 hours, according to Dr. Rosen, see a doctor.

3. Black and blue fingernail.

Closing car doors. Rolling up windows. Dropping hammers. Children smash their fingers and toes in countless ways, which can result in a subungual hematoma, the medical term for bleeding and bruising under the nail. The blood that pools under the nail can cause throbbing pain. But if you’re O.K. with a procedure that might make you slightly squeamish and produces a little bit of blood, you don’t necessarily have to go to the E.R.

For a bruised nail, Dr. Rosen recommended that you unfold a paperclip and heat one of the pointy ends on the stove. Then, gently pierce the hot end of the paperclip into the affected part of the nail until it melts through the nail. (Yes, he’s saying to create a tiny hole in your child’s nail. If you can stomach it, here’s a video tutorial.)

“There will be a spurt of blood, a release of pressure and immediate relief,” said Dr. Rosen. “The nail itself doesn’t feel pain so you shouldn’t feel bad unless you press too hard and hit the nailbed.”

Of course, if the pain doesn’t go away after the blood has drained, then your child needs to see a doctor.

4. Dislocated kneecap.

Sometimes, when children fall or something hits the front or side of their knee, the kneecap (patella) dislocates, hanging out awkwardly on the side of the knee. This can result in rapid swelling, bruising and pain until it’s snapped back into place.

Dr. Alison Kapadia, M.D., an emergency medicine physician and assistant professor of medicine at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth College, sees it often with young soccer players. She said that the key to relocating the kneecap is to straighten the leg entirely.

“Once the leg is completely straight, then you literally just put your thumbs on either side of the patella,” she said. “Tilt it up, and it will easily slide back on top of the knee where it belongs.”

Within a few weeks, she said, it’s a good idea to schedule a follow-up appointment with an orthopedist to make sure there’s no further ligament damage. “But that doesn’t have to happen right away.”

5. Scalp wound.

If your child has a shallow cut on the head and has hair that’s at least two inches long, you can use it instead of stitches to hold the wound together.

“This works especially well if you are in the woods and don’t have medical access,” said Dr. Kapadia.

She recommended cleaning the wound with soap, water and antibiotic ointment if possible, then taking a few strands of hair on either side of the cut and tying them together tightly to close the wound. (Again, here’s a video tutorial if you can stomach it.)

“It works just as good as sutures,” she said. “The downside is that your hair is now in a knot that you’ll have to cut out in five to seven days.”