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Onion Poultice for Deep-Seated Coughs

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Have you ever had one of those lingering, deep-seated coughs (often the last hanger-on symptom after a cold or flu) that just continually and gradually wears down your reserves of strength?

No matter how long or hard you hack, regardless how many pints of cough syrup or handfuls of pills you swallow, despite all the sessions of acupuncture you sign up for, it's the cough that just refuses to budge. That nasty little wad of phlegm that managed to drain from your sinuses and slip down deep into your bronchioles just won't come up. It's annoying and downright exhausting!

What to do? 

onionsThis is where my favorite home remedy comes to the rescue. It is the time-honored onion poultice --  or if you wish to add garlic for extra antibiotic effect, it's the onion-garlic poultice.

Whenever I think of onion poultice I think of one of my favorite movies, "Where the Lilies Bloom" (1974), about four suddenly orphaned backwoods kids who have to fend for themselves and call upon all their ancestral knowledge about herbs. There is a pivotal scene where some authority figure is stricken with something like pneumonia with a severely debilitating cough, and the children literally encase the stricken person in a bath of finely chopped (and I presume steamed) onions. The patient recovers, which adds greatly to the esteem of the kids who are trying desperately to conceal the fact that they are without parents but want to remain together.

The point is that this remedy really does work like a charm. It's the best treatment for pneumonia and stubborn coughs like the ones that seem to stick around after a bout of cold or flu.

There's any number of variations on how to prepare it, but I'll share mine which works for me:

  1. Finely chop two or three onions (you may also add a few cloves of chopped garlic for increased antibiotic effect).
  2. Steam these for a short while in a steamer.
  3. Remove from steamer, place in a large bowl, and add a half cup of corn flour and a couple of tablespoons of apple cider vinegar to help hold the poultice together. Mix well.
  4. Place the entire mash in a natural fiber cloth, large enough to wrap and keep the entire mash over an area roughly the size of your patient's chest.
  5. Apply the wrapped mash to your supine patient, as hot as can be tolerated without burning, over the chest, from the base of the neck down as far as you wish.  If the cough seems more on the back then apply it over the upper back. (If you are putting the poultice on yourself, you might need assistance from a friend or family member.) 
  6. Place a hot water bottle or heating pad over the top of the poultice to maintain heat for greater penetration.
  7. Rest with the poultice on for at least 20 or 30 minutes. 


This treatment can be repeated once or twice a day until relief is obtained. Applying the hot onion poultice before bed will help allay the cough enough to produce a more restful sleep. If you want to accompany it with a simple homemade antibacterial internal medicine, you can blend several cloves of garlic in olive oil and take a teaspoon to a tablespoon at least every hour. You can also make a tasty instant cough syrup by grating raw ginger and mixing it in warm liquid honey with the juice of a lemon.

The antibiotic and antiviral sulfur compounds of onion and garlic, when applied directly over the lungs, will ease inflammation, loosen and break up hardened mucus, and help expectoration. You may experience immediate benefit from even one application, but for some this may be accompanied with shorter bouts of somewhat more aggressive coughing fits as the hardened phlegm is loosened and gradually works its way out. 

This simple folk remedy is golden and should never be forgotten! Best of all, it requires no exotic ingredients -- just items you probably already have in your pantry. I know of no pharmaceutical drug, medical treatment or internal herbal formula that is more effective. 

4 comments

  • Comment Link Nel Thursday, 06 October 2016 11:43 posted by Nel

    Since there's no answer here from the original poster, I will venture a guess that the point of the SLIGHT steaming of the onions is not to change their effectiveness, but to heat them through. Heat helps to bring the blood to a body part where you apply it (it's also just plain soothing).

  • Comment Link elvira lusa Monday, 02 November 2015 19:08 posted by elvira lusa

    An old, old recipe. Do NOT steam the onion! Take the red onion, cut it into thin slices, put 1 layer on the bottom of the glass jar, cover with a bit of UNPASTERIZED honey, continue till using it all. Cover with honey. Let it stay for 15 hours. I grate some ginger, too. The original recipe is just onion.

  • Comment Link Audrey Smith Monday, 27 April 2015 15:01 posted by Audrey Smith

    I was wondering the same thing, did you get a response? I've been using raw onion grouch to a mash with fresh ginger and garlic with a little mustard powder. should I be steaming these for a better effect?

  • Comment Link Rita Monday, 02 February 2015 03:52 posted by Rita

    I use the onion poultice quite frequently, however, I do use raw onions. I have an autoimmune disease and get bronchitis/pneumonia far too often as I am much more susceptible to those things. I also consume raw garlic when fighting the battle. My question to you is this: Should I be steaming the onions for better effectiveness?? I am a firm believer in the health benefits of onions and garlic because of what I have personally experienced from my use of them. My relief has been quick (2 days max) and I am not spending money on doctors and prescriptions. I was just curious about the onion steaming.

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