Eczema, now on the increase among young children, is a worry to mothers, not least because the 'cure' which usually contains steroids is often far worse than the disease.
But traditional herbal remedies with a long history of effectiveness can safely be used to treat this disease as well as many other bothersome skin disorders.
In Traditional (Folk) Western Medicine, the extract of the stems of Solanum dulcamara (bittersweet, a sprawling poisonous nightshade with purple flowers and red orange berries) makes an effective treatment for eczema; it can be applied either through soaked gauze compresses or as an ointment (Deutsche Apotheker-Zeit, 1983; 123: 22-3).
Another TWM remedy, Viola tricolor (blue violet or wild pansy) achieves excellent results when used for eczema and other skin complaints of early childhood, including cradlecap, milkcrust and infant eczema (British Herbal Pharmacopoeia, Part 2, 1979, p 227).
The remedy consists of two teaspoons of the herb to one cup of hot water and is given as an infusion; the child should drink one cup both in the morning and at night for several weeks. As this 'tea' mixes well with milk, it may also be used to make up baby feeds, using milk instead of water.
The herb may also be used externally by soaking gauze compresses in the infusion. However, when used for this purpose, be sure to use distilled water or boric acid solution. Be careful not to mistake this herb for Viola odorata (sweet violet), which is used as an expectorant.
In many countries in Africa, a dilute solution of the crushed seeds of lupin species Lupinus luteus or Lupinus termis is made into an ointment and applied topically for eczema. In one well controlled, experimental, double blind study comparing a 10 per cent ointment made with an ethanolic extract of this seed, a steroidal ointment and a placebo, the seed extract was as effective as the steroid in the treatment of chronic eczema (J Nat Prod, 1981; 44: 179-83). However, just bear in mind that the Lupinus species are known to be poisonous and should therefore only be used externally (Dreisbach RH, Handbook of Poisoning, Los Altos, CA: Lange Medical Publications, 1983, p 554).
Of the spurge group of shrubby plants, Euphorbia gorgonis has also been used as an effective lotion for sores and skin eruptions. Its relation, Euphorbia helioscopia, is successful in removing warts (S Afr Med Rec, 1918; 16: 306).
In Indian Ayurvedic medicine, the root of Euphorbia acaulis is used to treat eczema. In one experimental double blind study, of the 23 patients given 50 mg of powdered E. acaulis root three times daily for two to six weeks, 18 experienced complete relief and three experienced 75 per cent relief (Indian J Dermatol, 1971; 16: 57-9).
Make sure to stick with only the specific Euphorbia species mentioned here, as others are irritants and can cause blisters.
Potentilla tormentilla (common tormentil) is another plant used for a variety of skin complaints. For chilblains, you can paint a mixture of one part tormentil extract to five parts glycerin onto the affected areas. Another possibility is to take hand and foot baths made with 200 g of oak bark boiled for 15 minutes in two litres of water (Weiss RF, Herbal Medicine, Ab Arcanum: Gothenburg, 1988, p 336).
Dry seborrhoea (dandruff) responds to scalp massage using oil of Arctium lappa (burdock) root.
Infestation by head lice or crab lice is best treated topically using oil of Sassafras (North American laurel tree) (British Herbal Pharmacopoeia, Part 2, 1979, pp 191-3).
Bee and wasp stings each take a separate approach. Since bee poison is acidic, sodium bicarbonate should be applied after extraction of the sting. Wasp poison is alkaline and should be treated with lemon juice or vinegar (Solomons B, Lecture Notes on Dermatology, 3rd edn, Oxford: Blackwell Scientific Publications, 1975, pp 174-5).
Harald Gaier is a registered naturopath, osteopath and homoeopath.