“Water treatments, wisely and skillfully given, may be the means of saving many lives. Let diligent study be united with careful treatments. Let prayers of faith be offered by the bedside of the sick. Let the sick be encouraged to claim the promises of God for themselves.” –My Life Today, p. 139

This month we complete our series on hydrotherapy, with the discussion of several more forms of hydrotherapy, which include fomentations, alternating hot and cold compresses, poultices, steam inhalation, and enemas.


To “foment” means, to warm or heat up, therefore fomentations always use hot water. They are made from thick flannel, towels, or any thick material which can absorb and retain heat. Gel packs are often used for heat, but they do not provide moisture. The combination of heat and moisture is more effective in healing as moist heat penetrates deeper. A fomentation is different from a hot compress because the use of layers will keep the fomentation hot and moist for a longer period of time. Fomentations can be medicated by soaking the cloth in an infusion of different types of herbal teas.

How to Prepare a Fomentation

  1. Soak a cotton or flannel towel in hot water (42C–45C/107F–113F).
  2. Wring the towel as dry as possible and place on the affected area.
  3. Use a large enough towel that it can be folded several times to retain heat.
  4. Place a layer of plastic over the hot towel to keep moisture in.
  5. Place another layer of cloth on top, in order to keep the heat in
  6. Using two towels can provide continuous heat for up to 30 minutes

Fomentations raise the temperature of tissues, and thus: stimulate circulation of blood and lymph; relieve engorged tissues of stagnant blood; take pressure off nerves; bring a stream of oxygen-rich blood to refresh and revive injured tissues; and relieve pain and congestion.

Fomentations can treat various conditions, depending on the part of the body where the fomentation is applied:

  • Headache—back of neck and shoulders
  • Sore throat, tonsillitis—throat
  • Painful menstruation—abdomen
  • Dry eyes
  • Arthritis—on joints
  • Colic, gas, pain of gallstones, kidney stones, infections—on abdomen
  • Colds, coughs, bronchitis, asthma—upper back
  • Muscle spasm—on affected muscle

Precautions when Using Fomentations

Be careful with the level of heat applied so that it does not damage skin tissue. Avoid placing a fomentation on the heart, head or open wound. A cold compress on the head should always accompany a fomentation to prevent dizziness. Fomentations use several layers to maintain heat. A hot compress can be used instead by heating a wet cloth in the microwave or a pot, but it will need to be changed frequently to maintain heat as extra layers are not being used as insulation.

“I had for four weeks suffered much with my lungs, and it was with difficulty that I spoke to the people. Sabbath evening a fomentation was applied over my throat and lungs; but the head cap was forgotten, and the difficulty of the lungs was driven to the brain. As I arose in the morning, I felt a singular sensation upon the brain. Voices seemed to vibrate, and everything appeared to be swinging before me. As I walked, I reeled and came near falling to the floor. I took my breakfast, hoping to be relieved by so doing; but the difficulty only increased. I grew very sick and could not sit up.” –Testimonies for the Church, vol. 1, p. 604

Alternating Hot and Cold Compresses

Alternating hot and cold treatments often have the most dramatic effect. It is frequently more efficient than just a continuous cold compress or a fomentation, but you may need someone to assist you. Alternating treatments dramatically increase circulation. Begin with 3–4 minutes of heat, followed by 30–60 seconds of cold. This should be repeated 3–5 times, always ending with a cold compress.

“The light which has been given me in reference to several critical cases has been represented to me as a sick child I had in charge, and in every case the directions given were, do not apply ice to the head, but cool water; but apply hot fomentations to the bowels, stomach, and liver. This will quell the fever much sooner even than cold. The reaction after the cold applications raises the fever, in the place of killing it. This direction has been given me again and again. In some cases, the ice applications may be warrantable, but in most cases they are not advisable. If the invalid has any vitality, the system will send the blood to where the cold is, and very often the system has no power for this taxation. Some cases may endure this kind of treatment, but I greatly fear for Brother —– if it is continued. Use hot water. In nine cases out of ten it will do a more successful work than the cold ice would do.” –Letter 112a, 1897

In prescribing hydrotherapy treatments, Sister White gave a warning, “danger comes in of not using judgment and reason in regard to the subject under treatment.” –Letter 189, 1897. Those using these treatments had to have knowledge as to how to apply them and when.


Definition: a warm, moist substance, mixed to the consistency of a paste, spread between layers of cloth and applied to the body to warm, moisten or stimulate. The word “poultice” comes from Latin “puls” which means porridge. A poultice is an external application of herbs to treat various conditions. They act similar to compresses, but involve applying the whole herb, rather than a liquid extract, directly to an affected area. It draws waste products out of body or transfers nutrients into the body.

What poultices do

  • Increase blood flow, relax tense muscles, soothes inflamed tissues
  • Treat menstrual cramps, relieve gas
  • Draw toxins out from an infected area
  • Draw pus from boils or infections
  • Relieve pain and inflammation from abscesses
  • Heal insect bites and stings
  • Treat chest colds and bronchitis, break up congestion, relieve sore throats
  • Can remove embedded particles from the skin, such as splinters
  • Decrease joint and muscle pain and inflammation, treat sprains,
  • On the skin, treat sunburn, surface ulcers, rashes from poison ivy, eczema

A poultice should never be used on an open wound as it will affect the healing of the wound and can allow bacteria into the wound.

How to Prepare a Poultice

  1. Pulverize the substance being used so that it becomes a paste. Dried herbs can be mixed with flour, corn meal or flaxseed to obtain a thick paste. Or use ½ Cup fresh herbs with 1 Cup water and allow to simmer.
  2. Gradually stir the paste into the boiling water.
  3. Add water and meal alternately until the poultice is well mixed.
  4. Once the mixture has the consistency of porridge, it is ready.
  5. Set the mixture aside for 10–20 minutes until it has thickened.
  6. Spread the paste on to a clean cloth (cotton, linen, muslin). The cloth should be large enough to cover the affected area entirely. The paste should be about ¼” thick.
  7. Either apply the poultice directly to the skin, or for those mixtures that are irritating to the skin, put a layer of flannel between the poultice and the skin. Or else, place the poultice in a flannel bag, and apply that to the skin.
  8. Cover the poultice with another cloth to help it retain heat and moisture.

A poultice can be kept on from 1–8 hours, often overnight. Do not reuse poultices as they will be full of toxins that were drawn out of the body.

Types of poultices

  • Herbal—dandelion, goldenseal, mustard, castor oil, sage, comfrey, slippery elm, aloe vera, ginger, chamomile
  • Vegetable— potato, onion, cabbage, carrot
  • Fruit—lemon, tomato
  • Grain—flaxseed, bran, bread, porridge
  • Clay
  • Charcoal—often combined with flaxseed to keep it moist

Study should be done to determine which substance should be incorporated into a poultice to be the most effective in treating the various and differing ailments mentioned above.

The Spirit of Prophecy contains many examples of the use of hydrotherapy, and its healing properties. Here are several examples of the use of poultices:

“When Hezekiah was sick, the prophet of God brought him the message that he should die. The king cried to the Lord, and the Lord heard him, and sent the promise that fifteen years should be added to his life. One word from God, one touch of the divine finger, would have been enough to cure Hezekiah instantly. But instead, he was given directions to make a poultice of figs, and lay it upon the part affected. This was done, and Hezekiah was restored to health. It would be well to treasure this

prescription which the Lord ordered to be used, more than we do.” –Selected Messages, bk. 2, p. 300

“On one occasion a physician came to me in great distress. He had been called to attend a young woman who was dangerously ill. She had contracted fever while on the campground, and was taken to our school building near Melbourne, Australia. But she became so much worse that it was feared she could not live. The physician, Dr. Merritt Kellogg, came to me and said, ‘Sister White, have you any light for me on this case? If relief cannot be given our sister, she can live but a few hours.’ I replied, ‘send to a blacksmith’s shop, and get some pulverized charcoal; make a poultice of it, and lay it over her stomach and sides.’ The doctor hastened away to follow out my instructions. Soon he returned, saying, ‘relief came in less than half an hour after the application of the poultices. She is now having the first natural sleep she has had for days.’” –Ibid., p. 295

“On Thursday Sister Sara Mcenterfer was called to see if she could do anything for brother B’s little son, who is eighteen months old. For several days he has had a painful swelling on the knee, supposed to be from the bite of some poisonous insect. Pulverized charcoal, mixed with flaxseed, was placed upon the swelling, and this poultice gave relief at once. The child had screamed with pain all night, but when this was applied, he slept. Today she has been to see the little one twice. She opened the swelling in two places, and a large amount of yellow matter and blood was discharged freely. The child was relieved of its great suffering. We thank the Lord that we may become intelligent in using the simple things within our reach to alleviate pain, and successfully remove its cause.” –Ibid., p. 299

Steam Inhalation

The inhalation of steam can reach areas unavailable to any other method of hydrotherapy. Its application treats respiratory conditions, such as bronchitis and pneumonia; helps loosen mucous in chest by liquefying it so that it drips out easily. It moistens, soothes, and warms the respiratory tract, including the throat, thus able to treat such conditions as laryngitis. It causes dilation of local blood vessels. Steam relieves chest tightness during colds, flu, tonsillitis, and sinusitis, and helps relieve headaches due to sinusitis, congestion or cold. In asthma and emphysema, it acts as a powerful expectorant (brings up mucous). For those afflicted with skin conditions, it opens the pores of the skin to treat oily skin and acne.

How to administer steam inhalation therapy

  1. Equipment: facial sauna or water heated in a kettle until steam is produced
  2. Duration: 5–8 minutes
  3. When water has boiled, remove it from the stove and wait until steam is generated. Cover yourself with a towel, making a tent for the steam to be enclosed in. Sit in front of the kettle (not directly over) and inhale the steam through the nose and mouth. Breathe slowly and deeply.
  4. With a facial sauna, once steam is produced, place face onto the base of the facial.

Also available are room steam humidifiers. These are useful for children who have congestion, and coughs. They keep the room air moist especially in cold, dry winter months. Adding essential oils can enhance effectiveness of steam inhalation, just add the oil into the water. These can include eucalyptus, wintergreen, mint, camphor, chamomile, or cinnamon.


Enemas are an injection of water into the rectum, useful for cleansing bowel and ridding the body of toxic substances or infection. You can use different temperatures of water for different purposes. Warm water: (38C/100F) removes fecal matter from the lower colon, improves peristaltic movements, thus relieving constipation and diarrhea. Cold water: (18C/64F) treats diarrhea, shrinks hemorrhoids, reduces fever, and intestinal colitis. Hot water: (42C/90F): expels gas; relieves painful menstruation; rids colon of infections; stimulates liver and kidneys; decreases pain of hemorrhoids.

Various herbs can be added to the enema to treat specific conditions: Chamomile: reduce internal spasms; Catnip: constipation; Charcoal: inflammation or infection; Olive oil: soften impacted feces.

Enemas must not be used too often, or else the intestinal tract will lose its tone and ability to evacuate normally.

How to administer enemas

  1. Equipment: enema bottle (rubber/plastic), tube, nozzle, lubricant
  2. Hook bottle to either the back of door or onto the shower rod
  3. Either sit on the toilet or lie on the floor on your left side
  4. Open the valve and release the water slowly—1 litre (4 cups) for adults, ¼ to ½ litre (1–2 cups) for children, depending on their size
  5. Try to retain the water for 5–10 minutes
  6. Release the water slowly into the toilet
  7. Fleet enemas are a simpler alternative that can be used in certain conditions. They can be applied without assistance.

Throughout this series of articles, we have learned about the vital need for water, how it affects our bodies, how its properties can be used in healing, and several forms of hydrotherapy and how and when they are applied.

Summary of some of the benefits of hydrotherapy

As we have seen in the last two months, there are multiple forms of hydrotherapy that assist in treating many different ailments. To summarize, some of these include:

  • Reduction in general anxiety and feelings of being stressed. Neutral bath or wet-sheet pack.
  • Reduce the sensitivity of nerve endings which report pain. Cold applications, or alternate hot and cold applications.
  • Calming of inflammation, which often accompanies pain. Using alternating methods of cold/hot/cold or cold alone.
  • Compresses and various contrast methods can reduce local swelling and congestion, such as with strains.
  • Alternating hot and cold can stimulate circulation, improving skin and tissue tone, and relieving symptoms of poor circulation.
  • Contrast baths, warming compresses, and alternating hot and cold can reduce stiffness and pain in joints and muscles due to inactivity or overuse (causing reduced circulation), by increasing circulation.
  • Hot applications can ease stiff muscles.
  • Pain relief by using different substances in water and poultices, including epsom salts and essential oils.
  • Regular cold showers reduce the incidence of colds and infections.
  • Steam reduces pain in the chest and sinus congestion.
  • Essential oil and mud or clay products in a poultice can treat skin conditions.

In Sister White’s time, treatments such as antibiotics that we have in use today did not exist. Many people died from simple infections that took over the body. With the use of hydrotherapy, infections were cured by the use of simple water treatments. These same treatments are also effective today. We are moving into a time when the use of antibiotics will not be available. The bacteria that are present today have evolved and grown stronger. Many infections can no longer be cured by antibiotics; they have become resistant. Scientists predict that in another 20 years, we will be back to the time when antibiotics did not exist, due to the ineffectiveness of current antibiotics to cure these treatment-resistant germs.

In Sister White’s time, many of the medications—which she referred to as “drugs”—that were in use were dangerous and killed more people than they cured. Today these drugs that were widely used would be considered poisons, including mercury, arsenic, opium, ammonia, belladonna and hydrochloric acid. Much of these so-called medicines were used for most ailments, and in various combinations. The knowledge of the human body and the cause of many diseases were still unknown. Physicians prescribed different medications to treat multiple symptoms at the same time, often creating a more debilitated patient after the concoction of drugs had been administered.

Hydrotherapy, one of the natural remedies, is effective for the treatment of many conditions that people even nowadays use medications to relieve suffering. For pain and inflammation relief, for reducing fevers, many of the medications have side effects that can cause liver and stomach damage. The use of water can prevent these unwanted consequences.

Sister White advocated for the “simple” and “natural” remedies, easy to give, promoted healing, and would cause no harm. These included: pure air, sunlight, abstemiousness, rest, exercise, proper diet, the use of water, and trust in divine power. She also promoted medicinal herbs. Even though these natural remedies are readily available and easy to use, she cautioned that they are not to be used without knowledge of their effect on the human body. Thus, study is necessary before applying even natural remedies.

“Again, there may be somebody sick there. You want to know how to use the common methods, the simple remedies of water. It is a simple power. Although my husband and I were not physicians, yet we were. We could go around when the doctor’s children were cut down, four and five in the families of physicians. We never lost a case. That is in diphtheria, and we used only the simple treatments. In doing this, we gained the confidence of the physicians. . . . It may be that God will send you to some such homes where help is needed for the sick. You can melt your way into the hearts of the worst souls and they be converted.” –The Southern Work, January 23, 1902 (emphasis mine)

“The refreshing water, welling up in a parched and barren land, causing the desert place to blossom and flowing out to give life to the perishing, is an emblem of the divine grace which Christ alone can bestow, and which is as the living water, purifying, refreshing, and invigorating the soul.  In the East, water was called the ‘gift of God.’” –My Life Today, p. 139