Compresses, poultices, and plasters are an easy way to use herbs, especially in a first aid situation. They involve directly applying herbs or herbal infusions to the affected areas, and are great to be able to have on hand for common accidents such as sprains, scrapes and cuts, aches, stings, rashes, bites, and burns. They’re also useful in treating internal complaints such as chest congestion, infections, and headaches. To make one of these, you simply need the appropriate herbs, a clean cloth or a towel, and some plastic wrap.
A compress is an external application of herbs applied to the affected part of the body, made by soaking a cloth or towel in water or an infusion of the herbs. In this case the herb itself is not applied directly to the skin. They are typically used to reduce swelling, inflammations, bruises, and insect bites. An ice pack is an example of a very cold compress. Plastic wrap can be used over the compress to avoid staining the sofa and keep other surfaces dry. They should be changed out as they change temperature; for example, as a hot compress cools off, or a cold compress heats up, prepare a new compress with fresh herbs for the best results.
A poultice, sometimes known as a fomentation, is an external application of the physical herbs to an affected part of the body with the intent to draw, sooth and heal, or increase circulation. Poultices are made by mixing mashed dried or fresh herbs with water or oil and then applying them directly to the area affected. A little raw honey can also be added for extra anti-microbial actions. The simplest form of poultice is the spit poultice, made my chewing up a bit of herb and applying to the skin. If you are using stimulating, irritant herbs, such as mustard, ginger, or in some sensitive individuals camphor, several layers of muslin cloth should be placed between the herb and the skin to avoid inflammations. Wrapping the area with plastic wrap not only helps to keep the area clean, but to trap in moisture, keeping the skin damp and facilitating a more rapid and thorough absorption of the herbs. They should also be changed out as they change temperature. Do not reuse poultices that are used for drawing impurities.
Plasters are essentially just a poultice, but use powdered herbs instead of chopped herbs, and sometimes include a binding agent, such as slippery elm, which is soothing, drawing, and healing, flaxseed meal, comfrey root powder, corn starch, or flour. They are typically stronger than poultices. When using plasters that include potentially irritating herbs such as ginger, cayenne, or mustard, cloth must be placed between the skin and the plaster to prevent irritation and burns. Like poultices and compress, they should be cleaned off and changed out as they change temperature.
Hot or Cold?
When determining whether to use a hold or cold compress or poultice, a good thing to keep in mind is that heat draws energy while cold constricts and restrains it. For example, for aches and bruises, the aim is to constrict the blood flow to the capillaries to avoid further engorgement of the area and lessen the pain. After swelling has left the area, a warm or hot application will help soothe and heal the area by warming and increasing fresh blood flow. By determining what type of healing the affected area needs (immediate relief or soothing and healing), you can effectively use temperature to assist the healing process.
Some Useful Herbs and Vegetables:
Aloe Vera – great for cooling and soothing burns
Apple Cider Vinegar – good for soothing burns, psoriasis, and easing swelling
Cabbage – old fashion poultice for ulcers, varicose veins, and shingles
Calendula – great for minor skin wounds and rashes
Camphor – useful for chest congestion, sprains, bruises, and minor muscular-skeletal injuries
Carrots – cooked and mashed into a poultice, traditionally used for cancerous growths and cysts
Cayenne – stimulating, excellent for internal and external bleeding, can be an irritant
Chamomile – soothing for minor skin irritations, calming, good for psoriasis
Chickweed – soothing poultice, good for eye irritations
Clay – used by itself or mixed with herbs, great for drawing, soothing, and disinfecting
Comfrey leaf and root – soothing, healing, makes a good base for combinations in most poultices and compresses
Echinacea – good for disinfecting
Ginger – stimulating and warming
Goldenseal – good for treating infections, drying, and drawing
Lavender – useful to facilitate sleep, and at the onset of a headache
Marshmallow – useful for soothing skin irritations and rashes
Mustard – old fashioned relief for sore muscles, asthma and chest congestion, sore throat, enlarged lymph glands
Myrrh – a strong disinfectant
Onion – as a hot poultice, can draw out ear infections and other pus formations
Plantain – one of the best poultice herbs, great for drying, drawing, and disinfecting
Potato – old fashion recipe, prepared raw or cooked as a poultice to cool inflamed areas
Sage – drawing, astringent, and healing
Shepard’s Purse – good for hemorrhaging
Slippery Elm – good for soothing, drawing, and healing
Thyme – great in hot compresses over the chest for lung congestion and coughs
Yarrow – great to slow and stop bleeding of small cuts
Yellow Dock leaf and root – good for skin eruptions, boils, bee stings, and wounds