Often nothing more than a few mashed or grated herbs wetted down and wrapped around a wound or boil, in modern times poultices are most commonly used on horses to treat the injuries they suffer from exertion. In an emergency however, poultices would prove useful for people as well owing to their renewability and effectiveness in treating many minor but painful afflictions.
Disclaimer: I’m not a medical expert nor a botanist or chemist. I do not recommend relying on an herbal remedy in place of proper professional medical care and advice, and I strongly caution you to determine whether any herb or other material could cause you harm by being applied in a poultice. This is intended only for situations where competent medical care is unavailable and you will need to take medical care into your own hands completely. Frankly, even the most ardent practitioners of herbal poulticing only recommend poultices for minor problems at worst so make sure anything that causes concern is mentioned to your doctor or another expert.
What is a poultice?
As mentioned above, poultices are basically just a paste of certain herbs smeared onto the affected area and bound with a cloth. They are most often used to treat inflammation, to draw out pus from abscesses or to bring boils up to the surface for proper lancing. When the herbal mash is heated rather than applied cold, it can also be used to promote circulation in sore or strained muscles much like modern heated bandages.
Herbs are typically used in order to give the skin the opportunity to absorb the beneficial elements of the plants used. As such the mixture of herbs varies depending on the purpose, but this list will give you an idea of the sheer variety involved in making these remedies:
- Onions. Used to treat ugly sores and boils (always placed between cloth, never touches the skin).
- Comfrey. Used to draw out splinters and other foreign objects stuck in the skin, as well as treating minor cuts and splinters.
- Elderberry. Beneficial for combating hemorrhoids as it reduces the pain and itching.
- Yellow Dock, Dandelion, Chaparral. All used either independently or in a single mash to treat minor skin problems like acne and eczema.
- Cabbage. Used to relieve swelling and itching from a wide variety of sources.
- Goldenseal. General anti-inflammatory remedy.
- Clay. Although not an herb, it favorite of equestrians and is often used to draw infections and splinters to the surface of the skin.
As an additional point of clarification, there is a very similar kind of remedy known as a “compress” that also uses herbs applied to the skin with a rag or cloth. The key difference is that a poultice uses actual grated or mashed herbs, while compresses use only concentrated oils without the actual leaves or stems of the plant.
How to use a poultice
For fresh herbs, simply place about 1/2 cup of the herb or substance in about a cup of clean water and simmer for 2 minutes. Without draining, pour the solution onto a clean piece of cloth or gauze, clean the area where you will wrap the gauze, and then carefully wrap the poultice around the affected area. Dried herbs should be ground into powder and then add just enough warm water to turn the powder into a thick, mudlike paste that you can spread over a clean piece of cloth or gauze. Clean the area and apply.
Generally speaking you should apply the poultice for at least 1 hour, though a poultice could remain in place for as long as 24 hours. You leave the poultice on (or change it out if it feels that it is no longer reducing symptoms or drawing out infections/splinters/boils as it should) until the desired healing has been fully accomplished. If symptoms worsen or you develop any kind of reaction, stop immediately, remove the poultice and call a doctor if available. Keep it and any other poultice mixture on hand if medical personnel are available, otherwise note the herb and concentration down so that you know to avoid using that particular poultice.
Any remaining herbal mash can be tossed into the compost heap or thrown away as needed. During an emergency I would probably just toss any used poultice material in order to minimize the chances of spreading diseases that might be lurking on the patient who used it or the person who prepared it. Clay poultices can be tossed somewhere where it won’t end up in a garden for awhile.
And that’s about it on poultices and their use. In a world where those little medications for minor aches, pains, and other irritations will be increasingly difficult to find a natural alternative could be a lifesaver.
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