Poultices have been in use as long as horses have been domesticated. In fact, they used to be a very common human remedy as well. Major uses for poultices are:
- to soothe and cool inflamed or overheated areas
- to draw excess moisture (edema water) from the skin
- to draw oils and organic matter (bacterial or insect toxins, edema/inflammatory proteins) from the skin
With as long as they have been in use you might expect good research to support their use but this isn’t the case. The medical literature is actually pretty scarce but it does support the ability of clays in poultices to draw out harmful minerals are well as proteins that would accumulate in areas of inflammation.
Poultices are commonly applied to bites, abscesses, wounds (not recommended for this unless extremely pure), areas of fresh musculoskeletal injury and as a prophylactic measure following hard work.
A dream poultice product would:
- have a high capacity to draw organic material
- be easy to work with and apply
- remain moist for at least 12 hours with appropriate bandage
- have low potential to irritate the skin
- be easy to remove
All of these features are important when picking a poultice you would keep around the barn for general use. In addition, an all purpose poultice should be gentle to the skin and free of ingredients that would generate an irritant/counterirritant effect since this would be contraindicated with acute inflammation.
Feet can often benefit from the cooling and drawing effects of poultices but to remain in place they need to adhere well and not become overly runny when warm. You also want a product that will not become completely hardened to a concrete like consistency overnight, and one that will not overly dry out the feet.
All poultices are based on clays such as kaolin and silicates. They work by drawing inflammatory proteins out of the tissues and also dissipating heat by drawing it from the inflamed tissues into the wet clay and then off by evaporation. Additives such as menthol, witch hazel and camphor produce a cooling sensation on the skin and help block pain. Glycerin helps hold water in the poultice and makes it easy to apply and remove.
In short, poultices are used to cool and soothe tissues after hard work or injury, draw proteins and bacterial products out of areas of inflammation or infection. To accomplish this the poultice must be moist. A poultice can be applied with no outer wrapping but these will dry out the quickest. A layer of plastic holds moisture well but also holds heat. A topping of wet paper helps hold moisture without trapping heat. A standard stable wrap and polo are often applied on top of these. If also wet, they will help the poultice do its job of dissipating heat.
Our tendency today is to go to drugs and high tech therapies but old time treatments like poulticing are still very effective. A container of poultice is something you should consider always keeping in your barn, to deal with problems from insect stings/bites to acute injuries or suspected abscesses. There’s no down side.
Eleanor Kellon, VMD