Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Thursday, February 24, 2005


Page 15



Mustard Poultice: a Gushy Version of the Mustard Plaster




The ancients held that mustard was good, and good for you, if not a virtual panacea. The Greeks credited Aesculapius, son of Apollo and god of medicine, with creating it. Dioscorides, the first-century a.d. Greek physician whose De re medica was the standard pharmacological text for centuries, prescribed mustard for everything from swollen tonsils to epilepsy, and as a tonic against “feminine lassitude.” The Roman scholar Pliny the Elder ground mustard seed with vinegar and used it as a poultice for snakebite and scorpion stings, while the Greek physician Hippocrates favored mustard poultices for treating bronchitis, pneumonia, rheumatism and neuralgia—ample precedent for today’s folk medicine remedy of a mustard plaster for many of the same ills.

—Smithsonian, June 1, 2000


While most people have heard of “mustard plasters”—and some still remember from their childhoods when their mothers stuck those smarting congestion-alleviators on their chests—there is less awareness of mustard “poultices,” used not only by Hippocrates, but well into the 20th Century in the United States.

What is a poultice? Picture mixing some mustard into a hot porridge, wrapping it in a towel and putting it on your chest. That’s the basic concept.

A poultice consisted of a carrier—oatmeal, flaxseed, bread, starch, even mud—and a healing substance. Poultices could be made with an ingredient other than mustard, in which case (and even Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Barbara Meiers might be able to figure this one out) it was not a mustard poultice. The advantage of the carrier was that it retained heat.

Of course, the damn things could leak. Those made from bread had a particular propensity for drizzling hot glup on the patient’s chest and on the sheets. This was, of course, a good incentive for getting well.

Applying a mustard poultice was less drastic than using a plaster (mustard paste spread inside gauze, towels, or other dressing). A medical doctor, Finley Ellingwood, explained in his 1919 work, “The American Materia Medica, Therapeutics and Pharmacognosy”:

“When mild counter-irritation only is desired, which is to be prolonged for some hours, a poultice is made in the proportion of one part of mustard to four or six of linseed meal or flour. This is not, however, effective in acute pain, but only where there is soreness or prolonged distress. Vinegar and mustard also make a good poultice for prolonged use, as vinegar destroys an excess of activity of the mustard.”

Ellingwood noted:

“A most efficient measure in congestive headache, or in headache from any cause with fullness of the cerebral vessels, is a mustard poultice on the nape of the neck.”

This advice came from the surgeon general of the United States Public Health Service on Nov. 6, 1925 in the Frederick (Md.) Post:

“Do you know what to do for coughs? You should avoid cough sirups. They are dangerous. A very little plain honey in water or stewed fig juice is soothing. Apply vaseline in the nose at night and a cold compress or mild mustard poultice to the throat and chest. Do not let the mustard poultice stay too long.”

While bath powders are on the market today, few would think of dry Colman’s mustard as being in that category. Yet, mustard baths were once common for therapuetic purposes.

Ellingwood wrote:

“For a hot mustard pediluvium [footbath], a tablespoonful of the powder is stirred into a gallon or two of hot water, in which the feet are immediately immersed.

“For a general mustard bath, two or three tablespoonfuls of mustard are mixed in a full bath. For a child one tablespoonful will be sufficient, care being taken to protect the eyes of the patient from the vapor.”

“King’s American Dispensatory,” published in 1898, was authored by a medical doctor, Harvey Wickes Felter, and a pharmacist, John Uri Lloyd. It advised:

“A hot mustard foot bath is of great service in congestive chill, also in the chill at the onset of acute fever, or acute inflammation of any character. It produces immediate derivation, assists in equalizing the circulation, acts as a diaphoretic [increases perspiration] and perceptibly checks the progress of the disease.

“In the recession of the rash of eruptive fevers no measure is more prompt than a general hot mustard bath, which should be continued until a mild redness covers the entire body.

“In arrest of the menses from cold, a sitz bath strong with mustard will sometimes produce an immediate restoration of the flow. It is always of assistance to other measures. It is sometimes necessary to take this bath each night for a week preceding the time the menses should appear and continue it until that result is obtained.”

If these remedies worked a century ago, they are not apt to be any less efficacious today, though more modern remedies just might have some advantages.


Copyright 2005, Metropolitan News Company