“Fomentation” is word that we don’t hear often, unless we’re reading about herbal preparations. Even though it’s not common, there are a few good reasons we could all benefit from knowing how and why to use fomentations.
So, let’s get right to it . . .
What is a Fomentation?
First, what IS a fomentation!?? A fomentation is a topical application in which cloth is soaked in a strong infusion and then applied to the body. It is much like a compress, however, most compresses are applied and left to cool, while fomentations are usually kept warm.
In a nutshell, a fomentation can be thought of as a hot compress or hot pack.
Fomentations don’t have to include herbs, they can be made with hot water, oils, hydrosols, and vinegars too. However, today we will be discussing fomentations made with herbs.
Some herbalists consider alternating hot and cold compresses to be an important part of the fomentation process. I will discuss this a little more later.
Why Make a Fomentation?
Fomentations are simple to prepare, which means they are accessible to most everyone (even those new to herbs could use this application method easily and effectively).
Fomentations are especially helpful in treating strains, sprains, cramps, and almost any inflamed area of the body. Coughs and congestion also benefit from this type of treatment.
Because the skin is able to absorb herbal properties, fomentations are an effective method of administering herbs when herbal teas or herbal tinctures (alcoholic tinctures or non-alcoholic tinctures) cannot be ingested, such as with an upset stomach. It will likely take longer to produce a result, but it’s better than doing nothing, right?
Basic Preparation of a Fomentation
(In the pictures you see here I am using ginger to create a fomentation to relieve congestion.)
First, select herbs for use and prepare a decoction or infusion (this is much the same as preparing a strong tea). Decoctions are made with tougher herbs, such as barks, roots, and stems. Infusions are prepared with leaves, stems, and flowers.
To prepare a decoction:
Add 1 teaspoon of dried herb for each cup of water. Add to a heavy pot and bring to the boil. Once boiling, turn down to a simmer for 15 to 20 minutes. Turn off and let cool enough to strain out the herbs.
To prepare an infusion:
Place 1 teaspoon of dried herb per cup of water into a heatproof bowl or pot. Pour boiling water over the herbs and cover with a lid or plate. Let the infusion steep for 10 to 15 minutes. Strain out the herbs.
Once your herbs have been strained from the infusion/decoction, the remaining infusion may need to be rewarmed as it should be quite hot (use extreme caution when working with and applying anything made with hot liquid).
Dip a cloth or small towel (such as a hand towel) into the hot infusion and leave to soak for 5 minutes. Squeeze out the excess water and apply the fomentation to affected area.
Keep the fomentation hot by laying another towel over the top and adding a hot water bottle or heating pad.
If you don’t have access to a hot water bottle or heating pad, use two cloths; keep one cloth soaking, warm, and ready to use as soon as the first one begins to cool off. Switch between them every few minutes.
If applying a fomentation to an arm or leg, it is helpful to wrap the wet compress in plastic wrap after it has been applied. This will help keep the heat in and protect clothing from discoloration. After applying plastic wrap, follow with a bandage to keep everything in place.
It is thought that using a cold compress between applications can increase blood flow to the area. This helps promote healing.
Every herbalist has their own unique method when it comes to the timing and frequency of switching between hot and cold compresses; it is common to keep the fomentation hot for a long period of time (such as 10-20 minutes) and follow with a quick cold compress of 3-5 minutes (as described by Master Herbalists, David and Fawn Christopher in this video). Cold applications can be performed with a cloth dipped in iced water, or by placing an ice pack on top of the herb-soaked cloth.
In her book, Medicinal Herbs, Rosemary Gladstar suggests applying a hot compress for 5 minutes, then following with a cold compress for 2-3 minutes. This cycle is to be repeated for 20 minutes. This constant alternating of temperature is thought to cause the capillaries to “dilate and constrict.” The resulting manipulation of blood flow can aid in “…clearing congestion and obstruction throughout the system.” (Source: Medicinal Herbs by Rosemary Gladstar, and you can read our thorough review of Rosemary’s wonderful book right here on Scratch Mommy).
Cautions & Notes
Always be careful to ensure the fomentation is not too hot. If administering a fomentation to another person, be sure to ask about the temperature, as burning the patient is not something you want to do, I’m sure!
If a fomentation is too hot, place a towel between the skin and the wet (hot) cloth or let it cool slightly before applying.
Use caution when using any remedies that include heat (such as a fomentation) if you have diabetes, neuropathy, or deep vein thrombosis.
Fomentation Examples & Recommendations
Sprains & Strains
A ginger fomentation is helpful in breaking up congestion.
Make a fomentation with comfrey and apply regularly (do not use on broken wounds).
A simple hot water fomentation can be effective. Mint may also be added.