How to Make an Onion Poultice

How to make an old fashioned  onion poultice

Some traditional home remedies made with common kitchen ingredients are simple, safe to use, and effective! This onion poultice is one such traditional remedy.

And it saved me from a lot of misery last week. After tiring myself out with Christmas celebrations, I succumbed to the awful virus going around in our community that is characterized by coughing, sinus pressure, and for some, aches and fevers. Because I am pregnant, I was unable to take most of the natural remedies I usually rely on when getting sick, and my case was by far the worse in the family (everyone else got mild versions of it). While I was thankful not to come down with a fever, I found the other symptoms overwhelming.

I haven’t had such a bad cough since high school.

But as I lay in bed trying to recover, and finding that my cough was getting progressively worse, I remembered a story from the fictional book Christy by Catherine Marshall. Deep in the Smoky Mountains away from medical care, she and another character saved the life of a young bride dying from some sort of cough and chest congestion using onion poultices. While I felt rather sheepish being so inspired by a dramatic, but fictional story, I looked up onion poultices and found that they are indeed a traditional remedy used for bad coughs, and are still favored by many today.

My husband made me one, and wow, what relief! For me, it seemed to help loosen things up so that my cough could become productive. Because our air is so dry right now, having the heat from the poultice be so moist also seemed incredibly soothing and helpful. Onions are known to have many healthful properties which could add to the possible benefits of using them in the poultice.

While, of course, you should consult your health care provider when sick and should ask them about home remedies, this may be a great, safe one to ask about!

Apparently it is also used for ear pressure (by placing behind the ear), headaches, etc. I am going to try it today on some of the sinus pressure I am still experiencing.

Thankfully, they are very easy to make.

How to make an onion poultice (traditionally used for coughs and chest congestion)

Directions for making an onion poultice

Slice 2 peeled onions thinly. Steam for about 8 minutes, or until soft, in a steamer placed over a couple inches of water. Remove from pot, and pat dry in a clean kitchen towel, and then place in new clean kitchen towel. Wrap up like a burrito. As soon as it is cool enough to be placed on skin, place on the chest and leave until cool (Warning: While it should be hot, you could cause burns if you put it on your chest too soon, so make sure you test it out first). Some people also place on the back for coughs, depending on where it is most soothing. To reuse, simply re-steam the onion slices for a couple of minutes, and then wrap in a new kitchen towel.

Notes: Some have found success simply microwaving the onions until soft. We don’t have a microwave, so I was unable to test this out. Others add garlic and/or ginger to the mixture. While we didn’t have any problems, some report slight skin irritation from the onion juice seeping through the kitchen towel, so watch for that, or any other sort or reaction.

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I love beautiful and simple food that is nourishing to the body and the soul. I wrote Fresh: Nourishing Salads for All Seasons and Ladled: Nourishing Soups for All Seasons as another outlet of sharing this love of mine. I also love sharing practical tips on how to make a real food diet work on a real life budget. Find me online elsewhere by clicking on the icons below!

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  1. says

    Thanks Kimi…heard of this but I have not tried it. In your research did you hear of anyone putting this poultice on your feet under socks to help beat a fever?

    • says


      Actually yes! I would say the only thing to watch out for with such direct contact is skin irritation. (Granted this was with raw garlic, but one poor mommy “burned” the bottom of her young child feet by putting raw garlic on her feet under socks overnight!).

    • Karin says

      When my daughter was congested & coughing, I would put onions in her socks at night. Worked wonders every time & we all got a good nights sleep. Same method….just let onions cool then add to socks. It is a bit smelly but hey it’s better than giving medication all the time.

    • says


      And who says you never learn something from reading fiction. 😉 I’ve heard the raw onion tidbit as well. One of my friend’s Chinese in-laws swear by it!

  2. says

    Where I live in central Europe, onion tea is commonly put in baby bottles for little ones with wracking coughs (sage and honey are also good, but not for babies), and onion poultices held on the ear with a hat overnight are the go-to treatment for earaches at any age.
    Hope you’re on the mend. Over Christmas I had the worst cough I’ve had since high school too. I rode it out, but it was exhausting.

    • says


      I would have taken far more vitamin C, oil of oregano (not the same as the essential oil and it is heavily diluted in olive oil), and perhaps a few other immune boosting herbs. Usually those things help me not get very sick. 🙂

  3. Lori says

    True Story: One of my uncles was born in Feb of 1945 and later that year came down with pneumonia. Antibiotics were new and not used in the general population at the time. My grandma made 4 onions poultices, but these were fried in lard, which is the traditional way and which I find works better than steaming as I’ve used both, though the truly traditional way was to fry in goose grease (how many have access to this nowadays?) and place in an approximate 12″ x 12″ flannel. I use a small amount of olive oil and drain on towels before placing on very thin towel and rolling up.
    Back to story: My grandma had taken him to the doctor and the diagnoses was pneumonia, with the admonition to use onion poultices. My grandma called her grandma and was told how to make them and use them.
    My uncle was very small and all preventive measures were taken to make sure his skin was not burned by the hot grease, and they placed a poultice on chest and one on back while the remainder two were kept warm on the fire. (an oven set on low works today). The poultices were replaced as they cooled, and the used ones were reheated to await as needed. It took many hours of diligently replacing these poultices back and forth and watching his condition. By morning (in the early hours), his wheezing and rasping has stopped. The pneumonia was gone and he was on the mend, though it would take a few days until he was completely back to full health, though there was no longer any fear of the pneumonia taking his life as it was completely gone.
    My dad was around 9 years old at the time and remembers the onions were completely black when all was done and they were tossed in the trash.
    Over the years, I have used a cooked (not steamed) poultice on pleurisy, other chest issues like inflammation, and ear infections. Raw sliced onions placed on bottoms of feet (place thin socks on, then onion slices, then another thin pair of socks to hold onions in place) and keep on overnight to help draw out fevers.
    An onion syrup for coughs can be made with chopped onions mixed with raw honey, placed in warm place to make a syrup and give by teaspoon for coughs.
    There are many ways to use onions as medicine.

    • Darlene says

      Lori, I just wonder why it would work better fried as opposed to steaming? This is very intriguing and I hope to remember to try it if I become sick.

      • Jessica says

        My best guess from reading her story would be that the lard would provide an extra layer of moisture and almost lubricant for the continuos heating of the poultices through the evening until the onions turned black. If you steam the onions you only have water in them and fat or oil coating wouldn’t be there to keep them from drying out as quickly so you may have to remoisten them if you wanted to keep the poultice hot all night.

  4. Rina says

    do you have to use white onion? purple or yellow? Also can you put on side if child like on a night stand and not directly in them?

  5. LISA says

    I see Rina’s question. What type of onion is the best to use?
    I have heard of adding some fresh garlic. I need to try this.

  6. Paula says

    My mom is near 80 yrs old and says this truly does work. They did it all the time when she was a kiddo. :o)

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