Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Herbal Poultices

In the interest of keeping all of my online herbal information in a single place, I'm re-publishing, along with some revisions and edits, the article I wrote several months back on herbal poultices.

A very neatly wrapped example of a  poultice.
Herbal poultices are an old-fashioned remedy employed by wise-folk for centuries with good reason; they are fantastic at  helping to draw out infections and speeding up healing.  A poultice can help by increasing the flow of blood around a wound or injury, relaxing tense muscles, soothing inflamed tissues, or drawing toxins out of an infected area and have been used successfully through-out the ages.

Our skin is an amazing organ that protects us from a variety of invaders, but it also has the ability to allow healing to occur when something is applied topically. Applying an herbal poultice to the site of an injury or wound  means that the skin will absorb the healing benefits of the contents almost immediately. Just stop and think for a moment about all of the commercial products that are being sold because they capitalize on this fact.

Among other things, poultices can be helpful in treating the following:
  • Abscesses
  • Boils & Carbuncles 
  • Bruises 
  • Fibrocystic disease 
  • Fractures 
  • Swollen glands in the neck, breast or prostate 
  • Joint pain and inflammation 
  • Pinkeye & other eye conditions (think teabags on your eyelids - those are poultices!)
  • Sprains & strains
  • Sunburns
  • Poultices can also help break up phlegm, draw out pus, and remove foreign objects (stingers, splinters, and what-have-you)  from the skin. 
There are probably as many different ways of making an herbal poultice as there are herbalists, however I'll share my own with you here. 

How to make an herb poultice 

An herbal poultice may be made with dried or fresh herbs; there are benefits to both and the two are prepared in slightly different ways. If using dried herbs, you will grind the herbs to a powder with a food processor or, my preferred method, a mortar and pestle. Place the herbs into a bowl and add warm liquid (water, raw honey, or even raw cider vinegar) to make a paste that can be easily applied. It should be about the consistency of oatmeal, so add your liquid slowly and stir to check.  If it's too runny, you'll have a nice mess on your hands and everywhere else.

And now you have another choice to make: You can either apply the herbs directly to the skin, as in this picture and cover it with gauze, linen, muslin, or some other clean cotton cloth, or  you can arrange the clean cloth (whichever you've decided to use) on a clean, flat surface and spread the herbal paste over the cloth. Wrap with a towel or another piece of clean cloth then use a pin or other fastener to keep the poultice in place.  OR you can stuff a muslin bag with the herbal paste and apply that to the area to be treated, wrapping the bag in another cloth or towel to keep it in place and to keep the herbal mixture from oozing out and making a mess. If desired or required, you could use a hot water bottle or heating pad to keep the poultice warm.

Draw-string muslin bag for poultice-making-made-easy.
If you'll be using fresh herbs for your poultice, put about 1/2 cup of the whole herb and 1 cup of water in a small saucepan, and simmer for 2 minutes. Don't drain! Next, you'll prepare the poultice in the same way as above, using whichever method you prefer. Muslin bags, like the ones in the photo, make the entire process much easier than trying to wrap them as shown in the first photograph. (Though, admittedly, those do look really neat!!) A simple "spit" poultice made from fresh herbs can sometimes be made by simply chewing the herbs and placing the resulting macerated mixture upon the area to be treated.  This should only be done when you are 100% sure of the herb you are using and its safety to be taken internally, because you will undoubtedly swallow some of it. Saliva actually contains many antibacterial properties (which may be why animals lick their wounds). If a "spit poultice" is not your cup of tea, you can chop the herbs with a knife or pulse in the blender with a little water.

An herbal poultice should be kept in place for anywhere from 1 to 24 hours, or as long as is needed or is convenient. Apply fresh poultices as needed until the desired level of healing has been reached.  It is not uncommon to experience throbbing pain as the poultice draws out infection and neutralizes toxins. When the pain subsides, you will know that the poultice has accomplished its task and should be removed.

Here's a list of some herbs commonly used in poultices and their methods of preparation if they are different than what I've mentioned above:
  • Chaparral, Dandelion, and Yellow Dock:  often used to treat dry, itchy skin as well as skin conditions such as acne, eczema, psoriasis, and rashes. You will obtain the greatest benefit if you combine all three, however it is still effective if you only have one of these. Only use organically grown chaparral from a reputable source or grow it yourself.
  • Elderberry: has been shown to relieve pain associated with hemorrhoids.
  • Fenugreek, Flaxseed, and Slippery Elm: can be combined to treat inflammation.
  • Goldenseal: good for inflammations and infections of all sorts.
  • Mullein: for inflamed hemorrhoids, lung disorders, mumps, tonsillitis, and sore throat. To make the poultice, mix 4 parts mullein with 1 part hot apple cider vinegar and 1 part water. 
  • Mustard: beneficial for inflammation, lung congestion, and swelling; also good for helping relax tense muscles.  Do not place directly on the skin (mustard is an irritant).
  • Onion: used to treat ear infections; also for boils and sores that don't seem to want to heal. To make this poultice, place finely chopped, lightly sauteed onion between 2 pieces of cloth, rather than placing it in direct contact with the skin. Very effective for respiratory conditons.
  • Pau d'arco, Ragweed, and Wood Sage: combined, these herbs have been used to treat tumors and external cancers. 
  • Plantain: Chew leaves well and apply to affected area (enzymes in your saliva help release the healing and antiseptic properties). This simple poultice will see pain, heat, and swelling -- even allergic reactions -- from insect stings and bites disappear, lickety-split!
  • Poke Root: often used to treat inflamed or sore breasts. 
  • Sage: can help relieve breast inflammation and soreness. 
  • Slippery Elm: can be used for the inflammation often associated with diabetes and for leg ulcers.  
  • Slippery Elm with Lobelia: can be used to treat abscesses, blood poisoning, and rheumatism. 

Information resources: Prescription for Nutritional Healing,  A Modern Herbal (Volumes I & II) by Mrs. Grieve,, and Rosemary Gladstar's Herbal Recipes for Vibrant Health

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