When it comes to intense external application of herbal remedies, it's time to pull out the big guns. Your grandmother probably talked about using some of these in her day. It seems as if they lost some of their popularity in the mid twentieth century in favor of more convenient methods of application but are now regaining recognition as powerful and valuable means to treat many ailments. Here, again, is a group of herbal applications that are rather similar and yet not. I'll share with you my understanding of each and how we use them in our home. Here we'll talk about putting some of the basic preparations we've been making to other uses.
See the Herbal Medicine Chest page to connect with the articles in this series that talk about creating those basic preparations or visit the archives for direct links.
Compress - a soft piece of cloth, preferably cotton or linen (not synthetic if possible) soaked in herbal tea, infusion, decoction or diluted tinctures applied externally to relieve pain.
Cold compresses are often used to ease headaches or applied to new minor bumps and bruises to reduce swelling. Simply soak the cloth pad in room temp or cooler herbal solution of your choice, wring out enough liquid to prevent dripping and apply. When the cold compress warms, soak in cool solution again and repeat.
Hot compresses are mainly used to ease muscle pain or speed wound healing. To make these, soak the cloth in a hot infusion or other herbal extract as mentioned. Again wring out enough liquid to prevent dripping and apply.
Poultice - a poultice is sort of like a compress except that we're applying the fresh herb itself instead of an herbal extract. Dried herbs or powders can be used by adding a little hot water. The fresh herb needs to be broken down (macerated) by some means to release their valuable properties. Pulse them in the blender, crush them with a wooden mallet, boil them for 2-3 minutes or, my personal favorite, chew them up! Place the macerated herb directly on the skin (you can apply a little oil first to prevent sticking if you wish) and cover with a strip of gauze, a cotton ball or cosmetic cotton pad, muslin or linen to hold it in place. Apply as necessary.
In the summer, I try to keep a batch of tiny poultices at the ready in the freezer. I make these with my favorite insect sting herbs and little cosmetic cotton pads. After they are individually frozen, I store them in the freezer in a tightly sealed plastic bag to reduce dehydration and freezer burn. Then when the need arises I take one out, sprinkle it with baking soda and apply immediately. (Because I have allergies to some insect bites, I need to act fast. I'd much rather stop what I'm doing and apply a poultice than have to make a trip to the emergency room or use my Epipen. However, don't fool around with anaphalactic reactions. Get medical attention! Fast!)
The reason chewing them up is my favorite is because it's almost an instant treatment in the field. Chickweed is nearly everywhere is the spring, summer and fall. It's excellent drawing properties make it a good choice for stings and splinters. Self heal kinda speaks for itself. Others in the wild might include sweet violet or plantain. In the garden I reach for lemon balm for insect stings. Don't forget that yarrow has styptic properties that may help stop minor bleeding. Due to the bitter taste, I'd recommend either applying this one directly, like gently pushing the leaf into a nostril for nose bleeds or simply crushing it with your fingers.
A word of caution - make sure you know what you're putting in your mouth! If you're not sure, DON'T!
Compound Poultice or Plaster - These are very much like poultices except that the plant materials used are dried and possibly powdered herbs mixed with a carrier or medium like oatmeal, ground flaxseed, clay or flour to create a paste when mixed with hot water. Remember grandma's mustard plaster? The hot paste is spread on a piece of cloth and then applied to the affected area. This is covered with another piece of cloth and possibly bound in place by wrapping the area with long strips of cloth. Besides holding the plaster in place for obvious reasons, this also holds in the heat for a bit longer. It may also make this method a little less messy.
A word of caution - again, smoothing on a coating of oil may protect the skin from any irritation that might occur from applying some of the stronger herbs directly and ease the removal of the plaster after use (think flour paste). Use caution when applying the hot paste! Test the temp BEFORE you apply it!
Another old folk remedy that uses this idea is gathering a little dirt in your hand and spitting in it to make a paste to draw the burn out of insect stings. Of course this was popular when dirt was a lot more "clean" than much of what you'll find now, still, in a pinch, I've used this one on wasp stings until I can get home. For me, it's often all I need to relieve the sting and reduce the welt.
Fomentation - fomentation is sort of an old fashioned word used for compress. However in our home, I use the term to differentiate between water or alcohol based applications and hot oil compresses. Using an herbal infused oil and a piece wool or cotton flannel (white is best) a fomentation is made by soaking the cloth pad in the oil until it is saturated. Squeeze out enough oil to eliminate dripping or running and place the pad on the area to be treated. Cover with plastic and then a towel. Oil fomentations work best when they are kept warm. Rather than using hot oil, which could cause burns, the fomentation could be heated with a heating pad or hot water bottle placed over the towel,away from direct contact with the skin.
A word of caution - Use caution when heating with an electric heating pad while treating children, elderly or a person who may not be able to feel it if the temp is too hot.
Castor oil fomentations are the cannons, the missile launchers, the rockets...get the picture?... in our arsenal of remedies. It's useful in nearly all ailments. So if you're at a loss as to which herbal remedy is best, castor oil can at least bring a little relaxation to the central nervous system which is necessary to initiate healing. Castor oil fomentations are effective in healing muscular and skeletal pain, but the real value is in healing deep pain issues associated with fibroids, adhesions or internal scar tissues, ovarian cysts, congested lymph nodes, infections, inflamed gall bladder, sluggish liver or digestive issues.
*Let me insert a note about knowing what you are dealing with before you undertake the treatment of serious health issues. I'm only speaking from my own experience here. Personally, I can't praise them enough. Having dealt with health issues that, aside from the standard present day over use of synthetic hormones, which I refused or unnecessary surgery, my doctors were unable to treat, I turned away from allopathic medicine. When I learned about castor oil fomentations, I was able to use this type of treatment to bring rapid relief. Read more about castor oil fomentations and how to apply them here.
The reason we use heat with many of the remedies we're writing about here is to help the skin absorb the healing properties. Heat relaxes the skin and muscles, opens the pores and soothes broken skin.
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