I feel I should preface this post by explaining that I am most certainly not a doctor, nor do I think you should use a poultice for some debilitating chest infection instead of seeking medical help. If you do that, you’ll probably die.
Poultices were utilised frequently in Anglo-Saxon leechcraft. As a matter of fact, poultices are listed an impressive eleven times in the Herbarium, twice in Bald’s Leechbook and once in the Lacnunga Manuscript. Bosworth and Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary provides us with several words for poultice: ‘clīða/clēoða/clȳða’, ‘clam’, ‘sweðung/swoðung’, ‘flacge’ and ‘onlegen’.
One fairly popular remedy, although not present in AS leechdom, is the onion poultice, which is said to relieve chest cough and congestion. There are many variations of the onion poultice recipe floating around the mire that is the internet. Some recipes include garlic for added antibiotic qualities, some require turning the onion into a salve and slathering on the entire chest, then covering and others are extremely straightforward and simplistic.
I’ve done the onion and the onion/garlic poultice and haven’t noticed a massive difference between the two. I’ve never done the paste, but it seems like a bit too much work and mess for my liking. Instead, I opt for the more simple recipes that I’ve seen on the internet.
- I typically use one large onion, or two smaller onions. The more onion you use, the more area on the chest you can cover.
- I then dice the onions and heat my pan.
- Once the frying pan is sufficiently heated, I throw the diced onions in with a little water.
- I then saute the onions until the water evaporates.
- I then take the cooked onions and drain them in a sieve.
- Once the water had drained and the onions had cooled a little, I place them in a clean rag or cheesecloth.
- I typically then pull up the ends of the cloth to make something of a sachet or bundle and tie with twine or elastic. I’ve seen some done this way and others done with a burrito-like fold.
From there, you lie down and place the poultice on your chest (assuming that it isn’t insanely hot still.) It should be hot/warm, but not painfully so. Leave it on for twenty minutes to a half hour and then remove, or you can simply wait until the heat leaves the poultice.
You can reheat the poultice in the microwave throughout the day and reapply as needed. A couple of the websites suggested you can use the poultice for up to 24 hours in this way.
I’ve read some accounts of people using onion poultices on their feet to ease lung congestion. I’ve not tried this one and can’t really vouch for its efficacy.
I’ve had varying degrees of success with laying the poultice on my chest, though. It acts as an expectorant, loosening any stubborn phlegm lingering in your chest. The heat also helps and feels soothing, if it isn’t too hot. Onions possess antibacterial, anti-fungal, antiviral and anti-inflammatory properties, which is why they are so beneficial in dealing with spasmodic cough.
 Leechcraft: Early English Charms, Plantlore and Healing, Stephen Pollington
 Although I was unable to find Old English use of the onion poultice for cough and cold, I did find this morsel of information in Stephen Pollington’s, Leechcraft: Early English Charms, Plantlore and Healing.
“A staple food in early England, it was valued for its strong flavour and its slight antiseptic qualities. An onion hung above a doorway was believed to protect against infection from those passing through.”