There are situations where a short-term remedy actually perpetuates the underlying long term problem.

For example, drinking more coffee is a kind of false cure for a caffeine withdrawal headache.

Similarly, scratching at a rash can make it feel better in the moment, but often perpetuates the rash.

Is there an adjective or phrase for these activities that seem good, but are actually deceptive and counterproductive? (E.g. "Scratching an inflamed rash is an [something] activity.")

  • A remedy that aggravates the malady (/disease)
    – Kris
    Commented Aug 8, 2013 at 6:56
  • Homeopathy? Alternative Medicine?
    – Fake Name
    Commented Aug 8, 2013 at 8:43
  • "hair of the dog that bit you"? "snake oil"?
    – Mitch
    Commented Aug 8, 2013 at 12:17
  • 1
    There is the concept of Trojan horse - something masquerading as a gift that contains destruction.
    – bib
    Commented Aug 8, 2013 at 13:52
  • 2
    Paradoxical? Any symptoms that arise as a result of medication that are actually the same as the symptoms it's supposed to treat are called paradoxical symptoms/effects.
    – deed02392
    Commented Aug 8, 2013 at 14:40

13 Answers 13


Counterproductive - Having the opposite of the desired effect.

  • 1
    +1 This is the only and best answer. Mari's definition describes the conundrum exactly, there are no viable alternatives. It just so happens that the answer is already present in the question!
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Aug 8, 2013 at 15:44
  • 2
    @Mari-LouA While this answer does seem to be on point, the OP knows this word and wants something else. And while you might think it best, only is a bit strong. Your answer would be perfectly fine in many circumstances.
    – bib
    Commented Aug 8, 2013 at 20:29
  • @bib Right. "Counterproductive" is a great word, but I am curious if there is a word that emphasizes something that is deceptively counterproductive. Thanks!
    – elliot42
    Commented Aug 8, 2013 at 22:45
  • @elliot42 See Further Supplement in my answer.
    – bib
    Commented Aug 8, 2013 at 23:05
  • 1
    @elliot42 Your request for a word that is deceptively counter-productive is self-defeating. :)
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Aug 9, 2013 at 3:56

I think your best bet would be self defeating:

Injurious to one's or its own purposes or welfare: "American officials will find it harder than ever to ward off self-defeating protectionist measures"


For many drugs and activities there is a rebound effect. This is characterized by

the emergence or re-emergence of symptoms that were either absent or controlled while taking a medication, but appear when that same medication is discontinued, or reduced in dosage. In the case of re-emergence, the severity of the symptoms are often worse than pretreatment levels.

This can apply to many different activities, such as energy conservation (more insulation and attendant savings leads to more usage) and traffic patterns (increased roadway capacity leads to more traffic) as discussed here.


There is also a principle known as unintended consequences for

outcomes that are not the ones intended by a purposeful action.

This concept applies to a broader range of outcomes than a direct exacerbation of the initial problem and might even include inintended benefits.


In light of OP's comment, consider the adjective insidious. Cambridge defines it as

Working or spreading harmfully in a subtle or stealthy manner: insidious rumors; an insidious disease.

Macmillan defines it as

something that is dangerous because it seems to be harmless or not important but in fact causes harm or damage the insidious effects of gossip

Collins offers these two definitions

  1. stealthy, subtle, cunning, or treacherous

  2. working in a subtle or apparently innocuous way, but nevertheless deadly an insidious illness

  • Well known side effect of xylometazoline nose spray to relieve congestion is the rebound congestion or so called "Otrivin Addiction"
    – mplungjan
    Commented Aug 8, 2013 at 6:12
  • You don't say "scratching an inflamed rash is an insidious activity". Insidious is fine to describe different maladies. Can we say "the insidious effects of scratching"? Really?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Aug 9, 2013 at 3:47
  • @Mari-LouA In his comment on Mari's answer, the OP specifically says he wants to emphasize deceptive. And you often hear about insidious effects of a given habit.
    – bib
    Commented Aug 9, 2013 at 11:37


"Trying to cure my headaches with caffeine only exacerbates the problem, because caffeine is known to cause a rebound of your headache."

"Scratching the rash will only exacerbate it"


It's not an exact match, but a quick fix is something that provides a temporary solution but which is acknowledged not to address the actual problem. However, if you want to explicitly imply that the action actually makes matters worse then one of the other answers may be more precise.


Perverse is often used to describe something that has the opposite of the intended effect.

From Dictionary.com, the first definition:

per·verse [per-vurs] (adjective) willfully determined or disposed to go counter to what is expected or desired; contrary.

The same link goes into the origin of the word:

1325–75; Middle English < Latin perversus facing the wrong way, askew, orig. past participle of pervertere. See pervert

While the words perversion and pervert are often tied to topics of sexual deviancy, its underlying meaning can be more directly associated with the word misguided (which is indicated as a synonym of perverted).

So you can say someone is misguided if they think continually scratching an itch would be beneficial. You would say that scratching has the perverse effect of ultimately causing harm.

Examples of perverse being used this way are not hard to find.

Here is one titled "The Affordable Care Act's Perverse Incentives" which describes the counterintuitive effects of a law this way (in it's second paragraph):

While recognizing the importance of these improvements, this Essay focuses on how the ACA will also create perverse incentives harming low- and moderate-income workers. This Essay explains how the ACA will impose effective taxes with respect to low- and moderate-income workers, thereby reducing these workers’ employment opportunities and creating a number of other economic and social harms.

Here is another, "Perverse Habits: The G8 and Subsidies That Harm Forests and Economies" It begins:

In 1998 the leaders of the Group of Eight (Japan, France, the United States, Great Britain, Germany, Italy, Canada and Russia) committed to actions that would help protect the world’s forests. Some G8 members, however, continue to provide large and perverse subsidies to forest products industries promoting programs that undermine forest protection and accelerate forest loss.

More examples are given in the section titled "Perverse Results" in the Wikipedia article on Unintended consequences.

The term perverse incentive is described as

an incentive that has an unintended and undesirable result which is contrary to the interests of the incentive makers.

Cobra Effect

Interestingly, the links on unintended consequences and perverse incentive lead to Cobra Effect, which has a fascinating origin:

The cobra effect occurs when an attempted solution to a problem actually makes the problem worse.

I won't quote the origin, which is worth reading at that link, but it has to do with how incentivizing the killing of cobras to reduce their abundance eventually led to the breading of them, which led to other unintended consequences.


'snake oil' is an appropriate literal and metaphorical phrase for a cure-all elixir of unproven worth, and would encompass a remedy that carries short-term placebo effects.


Related terms include: patent medicine, quack remedy, and home remedy

Patent medicines (and the related terms) are cures that do not work as promoted (not to be confused with patents given to pharmaceutical companies) were referred to as nostrum or 'our medicine'.



If you have conjunctivitis, you might have the urge to rub your eyes. An atopic dermatitis (atopic eczema) produces an urge to scratch that can sometimes be unbearable.

The skin of a patient with atopic dermatitis [...] It is sometimes called "the itch that rashes" because the itchiness precedes the rash, and scratching the itchy skin may cause the rash.

Difficulty in hearing might convince some to remove excessive earwax by using cotton swabs (UK cotton buds) which more often than not results in pushing the cerumen further down the ear canal. Acne sufferers will often squeeze or pop their spots in a vain attempt to reduce the redness and remove the white pus.

Scratching, rubbing, popping ... are not "cures" by any stretch of the imagination. On the contrary they serve only to aggravate and worsen the condition and as, the OP stated, perpetuate the symptoms. In fact the activity of all these remedies can be said to be futile.


Taking into consideration the OP wishes for a word or expression that emphasizes the deceptive nature of a counter-productive remedy (or urge) such as scratching, rubbing, squeezing or popping. I suggest the following:

  • Misguided behaviour . ("Scratching an inflamed rash is a misguided solution.")

misguided led or prompted by wrong or inappropriate motives or ideals, guide in the wrong direction; I was misguided by websites dealing with acne that squeezing my spots could improve my skin condition.

  • A misleading antidote. ("Scratching an inflamed rash is a misleading remedy.")

misleading : to lead in a wrong direction or into a mistaken action or belief often by deliberate deceit. Scratching might mislead you into thinking the itch will disappear or decrease in intensity.


This is a specific instance of your general question, but could be applicable:

In economics, the Jevons paradox (/ˈdʒɛvənz/; sometimes Jevons effect) is the proposition that technological progress that increases the efficiency with which a resource is used tends to increase (rather than decrease) the rate of consumption of that resource.[1] In 1865, the English economist William Stanley Jevons observed that technological improvements that increased the efficiency of coal use led to increased consumption of coal in a wide range of industries. He argued that, contrary to common intuition, technological improvements could not be relied upon to reduce fuel consumption.[2]

Or perhaps just "paradox."


I'm fairly confident that 'nostrum' is closest concise word to what you are looking for. (nostrum: "A medicine or remedy in conventional use which has not been proven to have any desirable medical effects.")

  • 2
    Please offer some evidence to support your answer.
    – MetaEd
    Commented Feb 16, 2014 at 1:38
  • Just look it up, for example in a dictionary
    – JacobLW
    Commented Feb 16, 2014 at 3:39
  • 3
    Sure, except that you as the answer writer are supposed to do that research and include it in your answer. You could edit and incorporate that link.
    – MetaEd
    Commented Feb 16, 2014 at 4:03

For what it's worth, something that makes the condition worse is contraindicated, but the word does not imply that it perpetuates the symptoms.


"Old wives' tale" comes to mind. Also, I didn't see "counteractive" mentioned in the answers above. I liked the inquirer's "self-perpetuating" modifier the best, actually. Sometimes the best 'word' for something is the definition, itself.

  • Meredith Greene

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