Friday, March 8, 2013

Applying a Poultice

This post is an tangent from my series on Healing Bone Fractures. In that series I have mentioned applying herbal poultices to my leg. I had considered including more details about applying a poultice in one of those posts but decided to do it separately so I can provide more details. I would like to thank my friend Elyse Portal who took some great photos while I was applying a poultice to my leg last weekend.

For the most part, a poultice is the most potent method of application of herbs to a localized area. This is because as the constituents of the herbs are absorbed into our tissues through the layer of moisture covering our skin, they are immediately replaced by more constituents from the herbs that diffuse into the layer of water. Also, the concentration of constituents is very high because the ratio of herb to liquid is very high. We are using a lot of herb and very little water.

We usually use dried herbs, but I often apply what I call a "survival poultice" if I get some kind of injury or bite when I'm wandering around in the fields and woods. In these circumstances I will find one or a few good healing herbs in my immediate area, chew them up and apply them where needed. I used to do this for my kids when they were small and we were on a hike or camping trip. You don't need to worry too much about bacteria in saliva because the antimicrobial properties of the herbs are very concentrated when applied this way and will take care of any risk of infection.

Here is the bowl of dried herbs I'm using for this particular poultice.

When using dried herbs, they should be coarsely ground. I usually rub them between my palms or use a mortar and pestle. We apply just enough boiled water to moisten them but so that they are not runny.

The herbs after moistening them with boiled water.

The purpose of the poultice I am preparing is to help heal the incisions from my surgery and to penetrate deeper into my leg to help heal my broken tibia (shinbone) as well. This poultice consists of 1 part common comfrey leaf (Symphytum officinale), 1 part stinging nettle leaf (Urtica dioica), 1 part purple loosestrife herb (Lythrum salicaria), 1 part pot marigold petals (Calendula officinalis), 1 part Canada goldenrod herb (Solidago canadensis) and 1/2 part whole flax seed (Linum usitatissimum). It is essential that a poultice is very mucilaginous. Comfrey is one of the few herbs that is mucilaginous enough that it doesn't require the addition of a more mucilaginous herb. However, since comfrey is only making up 20% of this formulation, it is necessary to add something to make it more slimy. My preference is to use a small amount of whole flax seed whenever I prepare a poultice. It will add the extra mucilage that we need and has important healing properties of its own. Never use ground flax seed. We just want the mucilage. We don't want to release the oil.

Getting ready to apply the poultice. At this point I had been poulticing the smaller incision on the right twice per day
for two weeks and the larger incision on the left for one week. There is clearly a difference between the two.

When applying a poultice I always put some gauze between the poultice and the skin. This serves two purposes: firstly, it ensures that small particles of herbs can't get into an open wound; secondly, it allows the poultice to be easily lifted off when finished without having to wipe bits of herb off the skin. This is important because when we remove the poultice we want any remaining herb infused liquid to dry on the skin. We use the minimum amount of layers of gauze to prevent bits of herb from getting through. The number of layers will depend on the thickness of the gauze.

Laying the gauze in preparation for the poultice.

When we apply the poultice we must completely cover an area a bit larger than the area we are working on with the moistened herbs and press down on them so that there is good contact with the skin. I usually apply it with a spoon and use the spoon to press the herbs once they are applied.

Beginning to apply the poultice...

...and finishing it off.

Under normal circumstances our skin is water-proof. In order to get the constituents of the herbs in our poultice to penetrate through our skin our skin must be hydrated to eliminate its water-proof characteristics. To accomplish this it is necessary for the entire area where we wish to apply the poultice to remain moist. We can't allow the skin to breathe. To accelerate this process it is also necessary that the poultice be applied as hot as we can tolerate and remain warm for the duration of the application. This process also takes time. The longer the poultice is in contact with our skin, the more hydrated our skin becomes and the better the penetration. I usually recommend a minimum of 30 minutes, but an hour or more is sometimes necessary, depending on the severity of the condition being treated. To facilitate the hydration of our skin it is best to wrap the poultice in plastic so that our skin remains in complete contact with herb infused liquid from our poultice and isn't able to breathe (no contact with air). Most types of plastic wrap are made of polyethylene which isn't known to leach any toxic chemicals. After wrapping the poultice I recommend pushing down on it once more to make sure there is good contact with the skin and no air spaces between the plastic and the herbs.

The poultice wrapped in plastic.

This whole process must be done as quickly as possible so that the herbs are still hot. Once the poultice has been wrapped in plastic it is necessary to cover it with a towel or something similar to help insulate it to keep it warm. If is going to be applied for a long period of time it may be necessary to apply a hot compress over the plastic. A cloth soaked in hot water that has been wrung out so that it isn't dripping will do. The cloth can be reheated periodically when it cools down. If the area where we need to apply the poultice isn't too large, a hot water bottle will also work and is more convenient than using a compress.

Covering the poultice with a couple of layers of towel.

Once we are done we can remove the poultice. For my leg, I have been applying a poultice for 45-60 minutes twice per day. When we use gauze the whole thing will lift off really easy.

The poultice has been uncovered and is ready to be removed.

When we remove the poultice the skin will be moist with herb infused liquid. We don't want to wipe this off. Let it dry completely before covering the area.

After removing the poultice we let the remaining liquid completely dry on the skin.
Notice the larger droplets of herb infused water.

Once the remaining herb infused water has dried completely the process is complete. We can bandage the area, if necessary, or cover it in some other way. We can also apply an ointment or liniment to the area, if appropriate, to further assist the healing process.

Which herbs we use, how often and how long we apply a poultice will depend on the situation, but the basic elements of applying a poultice will always be the same.


  1. Are there conditions to which one does not apply a poultice?

    1. A poultice is the most potent, but also the most inconvenient kind of preparation. For that reason I recommend only using them for moderate to severe conditions. Once the healing process is well on its way, switch to a more convenient oil-based preparation like a liniment, infused oil or ointment.

  2. I'm applying comfrey to a broken back, sternim and ribs, I was always taught to believe that you leave it on overnight. I'm just not sure how many times to do this treatment?

    1. Overnight is too long in my opinion, and very inconvenient. Personally, I don't recommend applying a comfrey poultice for more than an hour. For more serious conditions I recommend doing it two to three times per day. As your condition improves, you can reduce it to once per day and use a oil-based preparation with added essential oils a couple of times per day as well (I describe a good formula for a preparation of this type in my post 'Healing Bone Fractures, Part 2'). For fractures, it is best to continue applying topical preparations for at least six months.

  3. thank you for sharing your knowledge so generously, enormously helpful. I am treating my partner who's open sore on his foot became infected wading in a nearby lake. I'm using yarrow, garlic, and essiac tea (things i have on hand). Of course he's going to doctor should things not immediately improve. I just wanted to thank you.

  4. Thank you! This is so helpful.

  5. Thank you so much for this detailed post as I seriously have no idea what I'm doing!

    I think I've made my bread poultice wrong - I am a noob and I have a very bad boil on the top inner portion of my thigh - talk about a inconvenient placing! I've had worse placements in the past but this is by far the largest: It was the size of an 8 ball and although I am on antibiotics the thing seems to want to heal up the hole before its drained more than 25%. Basically as it was a pretty nasty thing I wanted to try and add some other ingredients to boost the effects. This is what I did, please tell me how to do this properly as I'm a bit clueless and am cobbling together info from a number of posts:

    Ground 1 teaspoon of Cumin and added the same portions of the following spice and herbs: Turmeric, parsley, thyme, freshly crushed garlic (which was pounded in to the mixture). I then heat up 1/2 filled cup of milk (semi skimmed - which I think is the pretty much the equivalent of half the fat of normal milk - soz guys from the UK!) in the microwave and prepared a large enough slice of bread (crust so it was nearly and inch thick) by covering it with a sheet of lint tied at the back. once the milk was hot (not too hot), I added the ground mixture, stirred thoroughly, let it step for a minute or two and then dunked the bread lint combo in to absorb for a few minutes. I then squeezed out the excess and applied to the boil. I'm currently sat at the computer with the bloody thing strapped to me via towel and then a water bottle between that and my legs - lol for imagery! I'm staying at my mothers for a while at the moment so she's gonna grab some cling film shortly so that should help with application. Any suggestions would be sooooo welcome with herbs and combos and my obviously flawed methodology - or indeed any other thoughts you knowledgeable sorts have. :) xx

  6. Hello there
    i broke my little toe very badly 4 weeks ago. I have been applying daily poultices, but only just got hold of comfrey root . I have only been putting them on for 20-30 mins. my bone seems to be healing but i am still on crutches anhaving trouble walking.
    For how much longer would you recommend applying a poultice? (as in days/weeks or longer)
    and for how long at a time?

    thank you :)

    1. Sorry for the late reply. I'm not around much during harvesting season.

      Hopefully you've kept up doing your poultices. Healing fractures in our feet is challenging because it is a region of our body that has poorer blood flow and because of the obvious stress of walking. It is essential to do it right or you will have problems later on. I recommend you continue to apply a poultice at least once a day until you are walking with relatively little pain. At other times during the day apply an oil based preparation. Once you no longer need to do a poultice continue with the oil based preparation until you are at least 2 weeks without any discomfort. For more info on that and other suggestions see my posts on 'Healing Bone Fractures'

  7. My skin has peeled off from where I appIied the poultice overnight. I used comfrey root powder mixed with water. I think it's becuz my husband made it too watery? My foot/ankle is now a completely different color, very very pink instead of brownish. Have broken ankle, 12 screws and 5 plates. Surgery was Dec. 15, 2015. Even tho I am 72, have also been taking 3 drops of comfrey tincture twice a day. Is this too much?

    1. It's difficult for me to know exactly what's going on without knowing more about you. As you aren't a client of mine I can only give you some general information.

      The discoloration of your skin is probably due to the herbs bringing more blood to the area where they were applied. It is also to be expected if there is any peeling of your skin. It is not uncommon for your skin to peel. There has been a lot of trauma to the area and it is probably part of the healing process.

      It is also possible that your body is reacting the the metal. I'm assuming they used titanium. Some people react to titanium in their body. Usually they adapt over time but a small percentage of people can't handle it. I had skin rashes and peeling for over a year after the metal was put in my leg even with all of the things I was doing to help facilitate the healing process. The reaction gradually became less severe and then went away.

      My biggest concern is that you are using comfrey on it's own and internally. There are concerns about liver toxicity. The toxic constituents can even be absorbed through your skin. When you reach your 70s and 80s your liver function starts to slow down. As a result, the potential for comfrey to harm your liver increases. I recommend you not use comfrey root which is more toxic than the leaves. I also recommend that the comfrey leaf component of your poultice not be more than 1/3. Also make sure you are using common comfrey (Symphytum officinale) and not Russian comfrey (Sympytum x uplandicum). You can use herbs like nettle, boneset and plantain along with the comfrey in your poultice. It's also best to add a bit of whole flax seed as comfrey leaf isn't as mucilaginous as the root.

      The dose you are taking internally is small. It should be OK for a month or two but then discontinue taking it. I recommend you immediately start taking the 200C potency homeopathic preparation (Symphytum) and take that 3 times per day for 3-4 months and then once per day for another 3-4 months. That means you will continue taking it after you stop the tincture.

      You can find a lot more information on how to treat bone fractures in my 'Healing Bone Fractures' series of posts.

  8. can you reuse a comfrey poultice, or do you have to make a new one each time?

    1. A poultice should not be reused. You need to make a new one each time.

      Once it is used it makes great compost, especially if it contains comfrey.

  9. I am using a comfrey tincture on my big toe, which I believe is only bruised/swollen, not broken/fractured. I have little to no pain, just swelling, bruising and tenderness. My question: how many times can I apply the tincture to my toe? I am trying to stay off of it as much as possible. Thank you!

    1. You can apply it 3-4 times per day. For your bruised toe, it is best if you add something warming to it as well like a bit of cayenne or ginger tincture.

  10. A week and a half ago, I broke the 5th metatarsal on my right foot and found out that it is a Jones fracture. The doctor wanted to give me a cast, but due to extreme anxiety about being stuck in one, he gave me a removable boot to keep it immobilized and I cannot bear any weight at all. I just learned about comfrey, bought some dried leaves from my local health food store and made a poultice night before last, which I left on my foot for 23 hours. Now I'm hearing that that was too long. Is it possible that I damaged the bone? My intention was to remove the first one, replace it with another and 24 hours later replace it again. When I took the first one off, though, my foot was a troubling gray color and looked severely waterlogged. I'm assuming that's from all of the moisture plus being wrapped in plastic inside of a boot. I didn't put a second one on then and my foot's color has fully returned today. The original poultice has been off now for 16 hours, but I am planning on putting another on for maybe an hour later today. The doctor says that it will take a minimum of 3 months for the fracture to heal (but if the boot's not working in 3 weeks when I return to the Dr, he may prescribe surgery). In researching and talking to other people who've been through this, I've learned that it can easily take a year or more to recover from this most dreadful type of fracture. Of course, I'd rather it be over asap! So, for best results, how often should I apply a comfrey poultice and how long should I leave it on each time? Thanks for reading and thank you in advance for your reply.

  11. How long do you leave Comfrey Salve on a cut? I'm sorry it's not part of the topic but I'm writing a story and this is what I need to find out. Google doesn't actually give me a answer. It's hard to find that answer. So please can you help me out?

    Thank you.

    1. If you are using a salve you apply it and leave it on. The more severe the cut the more often you apply it, ranging from once per day for a very minor cut to up to 5 or 6 times per day if it is more severe. In the latter case you reduce the frequency of applications as the cut heals. However, for more severe cuts you can continue to apply it for some time after it heals to help reduce scarring.

      If you are using a comfrey poultice it should be left on for at least 20-30 minutes — up to an hour for more severe wounds. For minor wounds a poultice isn't necessary. A salve is good enough. For moderate wounds apply a poultice once per day and apply a salve a couple of times per day as well. For more severe wounds apply a poultice 2-3 times per day. Applying herbs as a poultice is much stronger than a salve.

      The one challenge with comfrey is that it is so effective that if you are applying it to a deep wound there is a risk that the surface tissues may heal before the deeper tissues. When a wound seals on the outside too quickly it is possible that the wound could abscess. If there is a danger of infection it is always best to also use a couple of herbs that are strongly antibacterial. Comfrey itself is not very antibacterial.

  12. I have been reading thru your thread.. Very informational... wish i had found this earlier. I have a diabetic husband who had an ulser on his Great toe.. They ortho surgeon did surgery to help clean infection. He said he wants to give up on the toe and possibly remove it next week.. I have not tried this buy I heard Comfrey can do amazing things he has a sizable open wound in the back of the toe from surgery.. What can I try and try quickly in hopes of improvement... Thank you!!!!!!

  13. I have tendinitis where three come together on the inside of m knee. I only have Russian comfrey. Can I use it for my poultice? If not, why not?