The term ‘poultice’ (not to be confused with poultry!) refers to naturopathic treatments that have stood the test of time, as many grandmothers can tell you. Although well-known as a remedy for abscesses or as an anti-inflammatory treatment for horses, these days it’s not as well-known as a treatment for humans. So, if you’re this side of 50, you may well ask, ‘What exactly is a poultice?’
Medically, a poultice is a type of plaster or dressing that holds a variety of soft, moist, and often heated materials (usually of natural origin), which are applied to the body to relieve pain and inflammation, stimulate circulation, draw out toxins or splinters, provide local warmth to an area, or perform other functions. The word derives from the Latin puls, pultes meaning porridge, which aptly conveys the consistency of a poultice.
Poultices can be made from basic ingredients found in your kitchen cupboard or home. Knowing how to make a poultice is a useful bit of nature-cure knowledge to tuck away in your memory file, plus it can save you money as well as unnecessary trips to the doctor, clinic or pharmacy.
The 1,2,3 of poultice prep
To make this versatile treatment you need the following:
- Some relatively porous fabric, such as cheesecloth, muslin, gauze, a cotton handkerchief – or another inert substrate to carry the active ingredients.
- Active ingredient materials, suitable to the condition needing treatment, which is prepared and applied. The ingredients are mushed up until moist, and may be heated or not, before being applied either directly to the skin and simply covered with a cloth, or placed between two pieces of cloth and applied to the skin – depending on what substance is being used and what is the intended treatment. While most poultices are very safe to use, some treatment substances, like mustard, are best spread between two layers of cloth to prevent skin irritation.
- An additional bandage or other form of wrapping is used over the poultice dressing to both keep it in place and retain heat (if that is required for the treatment). The poultice is usually left in place until the ingredients have dried out or cooled down. It may be replaced, with fresh ingredients, every three to four hours or as needed. The exception to this is mustard or cayenne poultices (and to some extent raw onion ones too): 15 to 30 minutes is usually the maximum time these types are left on the skin.
Some typical poultice materials include clays, bran, bread, milk, oils, gels (including aloe), mustard, herbs and spices (e.g. garlic, ginger), seeds (e.g. linseed), fruits and vegetables (e.g. onions, cabbage, carrot, potatoes), tea leaves, soap, sugar, honey, essential oils and various unguents. A poultice can consist of a simple single material or a synergy of more complex ingredients.
WHAT CAN BE TREATED?
A wide range of conditions can be treated with various types of poultices. These include abscesses and boils, acne, arthritis, bee stings and insect bites, bruises, chest congestion and coughs, conjunctivitis, earache, inflammation, itchy rashes, splinters, sprains, sunburn, warts…. you name the condition, there’s likely to be a poultice for it!
Wooden splinters, thorns, metal or glass shards that are too risky or painful to pick at with tweezers or a needle? Try a poultice. A simple drawing-poultice to help get a splinter out (or bring a boil to a head) can be made with equal parts of grated soap and sugar, mixed together until it forms a soft paste, liberally applied to the area and kept covered and dry for 24 hours. If that doesn’t do the trick, just clean the area and apply a fresh poultice for another 24 hours and the offending object should just pop out. Alter- natively, bread soaked in hot water or milk, and squeezed out (and repeated as needed), can be applied to thorns and splinters, as well as infections and boils. Easy-peasy!
Boils can be treated with the following favourite herbal poultice: pick a handful of fresh thyme leaves and a few plantain leaves and mush them up in a pestle and mortar. Pour on boiled water to just cover the pulp and add enough slippery elm powder (one to three tablespoons) to make a paste. Apply directly to the boil or make a gauze sandwich with the paste as the filling. Cover with a clean cloth or bandage and leave in place for three to four hours. Repeat as needed until the boil pops. Turmeric powder can also be added to this paste, but be careful, as it stains cloth. A raw onion poultice can also draw out boils. Grate or chop up onion in a blender, spread between two pieces of cloth and apply to boil. Applying heat, via a hot pad or hot water bottle, will speed up the process of drawing boils to a head.
Eye problems such as conjunctivitis can often be simply treated by applying a cold potato poultice. Grate some raw potato to make a poultice paste and apply to the affected area, changing the dressing as described in the 1,2,3 section above. A potato poultice made from grated potato mixed with hot water and blended into a paste can also be helpful for all types of inflammation.
Aches, pains, bruises and sprains respond well to a poultice made from the roots and leaves of the comfrey herb, Symphytum officinale. Place the raw herb into a pestle and mortar, pour on a little bit of hot water and mash into a pulp. Spread on to some cloth and apply. Repeat as needed. Sprains, strains, bruises and inflammation can also benefit from a simple bran poultice made with hot water make a mash and apply it as hot as can be tolerated.
Arthritic and rheumatic aches and pains can benefit from cayenne pepper poultices. Make a paste from one part cayenne pepper, and equal parts of slippery elm powder and mullein leaves. Add some water or apple cider vinegar to hold it together and spread between two pieces of muslin before applying. The skin will become red, as circulation is stimulated by cayenne, but watch out for skin irritation with spices like cayenne and mustard. If discomfort is experienced remove it immediately, rinse the skin, and apply a soothing lotion or some Gentle Gel (see my recipe at the end of this article).
Skin disorders such as acne, eczema, psoriasis, itchy skin and rashes can be soothed with a cool poultice made from the root, leaves and flowers of the humble dandelion. Old, cold teabags are another instant type of poultice to relieve itchy skin and sunburn. Sunburn can also be relieved with an aloe gel poultice. A honey poultice, applied directly to injured skin, helps soothe burns and grazes while slow-healing sores can be treated with an onion poultice.
Breast engorgement in breastfeeding mothers can be relieved by one of the most simple remedies ever: the humble cabbage leaf. Many breastfeeding mothers have attested to the merits of a cool cabbage leaf on the boobs to decrease discomfort. It can be turned into a totally biodegradable poultice by chopping raw cabbage in a blender and adding the mash to a large cabbage leaf and popping it onto the painful breast, before slipping on a soft bra to hold it in place. This treatment can be repeated as often as needed and won’t harm the baby in any way. Raw or cooked cabbage poultices are also used for various other conditions such as congested liver, gout, rheumatism, eczema, varicose veins, shingles, and pelvic cysts and fibroids.
Insect stings and bites, boils, and even ear infections are relieved by plain mushed up raw onion. For bites and stings, dab a tiny bit of the onion paste on directly, or if the skin is too tender, make a gauze ‘sandwich’ and apply to the lesions. A poultice made from crushed raw dandelion is also great for insect stings, especially when a bit of apple cider vinegar is used to help make the paste, and is safe for children’s skin.
Coughing, colds and flu can be eased by a time-honoured poultice made with onion. Chop up a couple of onions and quickly steam them to soften up. Mash them in a bowl and add ½ cup flour or cornflour (Maizena) to make a thick paste. Add a few spoons of hot water if needed to hold it together. Five to ten drops of eucalyptus essential oil can also be added. Spread the hot paste on to a muslin cloth and apply to the chest. Cover with a thin towel or some plastic to keep the heat in and put a hot water bottle or heating pad on top. Rest for 30 to 60 minutes. A fresh poultice can be made and placed on the back for another 30 to 60 minutes. Repeat twice daily until symptoms resolve. Mashed up raw onion can also be used, sandwiched between two layers of flannel, but keep a check on such a poultice to make sure the skin isn’t irritated by the onion juice.
Chest complaints, arthritic joints and conditions that require circulation stimulation respond to the good old mustard poultice. Mix mustard powder with water to form a paste. Spread the paste between two pieces of cheesecloth and apply to intact skin. Do not apply directly to the skin as it can cause severe blistering if left unchecked. Leave on adult skin for 10 to 15 minutes only. If using a mustard poultice on a child or person with fragile skin it must be carefully monitored and removed the moment it becomes uncomfortable.
Sometimes it is desirable to apply some ointment to certain skin conditions, especially after prolonged use of poultices if the skin has become sensitive. Many people resort to petroleum jelly (Vaseline) because it is inexpensive and freely available. However, there is a simple, natural and healthier alternative available that is really easy to make at home. Here’s my favourite recipe for a non-petroleum jelly:
- 60g or ml of olive, jojoba or castor oil, gently warmed
- 15g grated beeswax, melted
Combine the warmed and melted ingredients. If the wax starts to solidify just warm the mixture gently until everything melts together. Cool if needed, but while still liquid, pour into a clean screw-cap glass jar. Once the ointment gel has cooled and solidified it can be capped. Label and use with gay abandon on all sorts of ‘einas’.
May your poultice experiences be empowering and profound!