Published February 18, 2012
Experts' top treatments for sore-throat pain, from home remedies to drugstore buys.
Try it when: Your throat feels dry.
How it works: A humidifier keeps the air around you moist. That’s important, since “indoor heat and arid air may dry out the mucous membranes,” says Michael Finkelstein, a holistic physician in Westchester County, N.Y.
Good to know: Keep the humidifier’s water tank and filter clean to prevent the growth of mold, which can worsen symptoms and, in some cases, lead to lung issues.
Try it when: You begin to notice a tickle.
How it works: This pungent bulb is thought to have “tremendous immune-stimulating effects” as well as antimicrobial (read: virus-fighting) and antibacterial qualities, says Finkelstein. So it may help the body to heal the infections that cause a sore throat while fighting the germs that cause the pain and the irritation. The compound that may be responsible for this is allicin, which is released when raw garlic is cut, crushed, or chewed. Finkelstein suggests microwaving one or two cloves for 10 to 15 seconds to decrease the intensity of the taste, then crushing them in a press and eating the garlic on a cracker. Do this once daily.
Good to know: Garlic supplements, which may be effective at lowering cholesterol and blood pressure, do not seem to help the immune system.
3. Zinc Lozenges
Try them when: You have mild soreness along with a stuffy nose. Pop in one every two to four hours as needed.
How they work: These coat the throat to soothe red, raw tissue. In addition, as the zinc ions dissolve, they migrate up the nose, where they bind to and may halt the virus causing a cold. A study conducted at Wayne State University, in Detroit, showed that patients who took zinc lozenges every two to three waking hours cut the duration of a cold by almost half. And since most sore throats come with a cold, start sucking on a lozenge at the first signs of pain. Look for drops that contain zinc gluconate, which is easier on the stomach than other forms, and take them with food to reduce the risk of queasiness.
Good to know: Because some supplements can interfere with other medications, check with your doctor first.
4. Warm Salt Water
Try it when: Your throat is feeling sore and scratchy.
How it works: “This solution is soothing and can kill bacteria in the throat,” says Dr. Grace Keenan, director of the Nova Medical Group, in Ashburn, Virginia. “And it can help increase blood flow to carry infection-fighting cells to the throat to speed recovery.” Mix one teaspoon of salt per pint of water to create a gargle, and use that mixture once a day or as needed.
Good to know: The water should be comfortably warm, not hot. “You don’t want to burn your throat,” says Tim Tucker, a pharmacist in Huntingdon, Tenn.
5. Herbal Tea
Try it when: The pain persists all day.
How it works: Herbal varieties may contain an immune booster, such as goldenseal root or echinacea; licorice, which is antiviral and antibacterial; or marshmallow herb, which helps produce the protective mucous in your throat.
Good to know: The above herbs can also be taken as tinctures, which are distilled liquids you place under the tongue. Find them at a pharmacy or a health-food store.
6. Slippery-Elm Lozenges
Try them when: Your throat is red and feels raw.
How they work: The powdered bark of the tree keeps your throat moist, which eases the discomfort brought on by inflammation. Try lozenges that are free of lactose. That’s important, says Finkelstein, because dairy ingredients may stimulate pain-inducing inflammation.
Good to know: Some slippery-elm lozenges are combined with vitamin C, which some studies have shown to reduce a cold’s duration, including scratchy throats. As with zinc lozenges, check with your doctor before using.
7. Over-the-Counter Numbing Spray
Try it when: Every swallow aches a little.
How it works: When the spray hits your throat, the ingredient phenol (a local anesthetic) gives instant, albeit temporary, relief. “These sprays deaden the area for a couple of hours, so if you have a very irritated, inflamed throat, they make it feel better fast,” says Tucker.
Good to know: These sprays simply mask the pain. They don’t treat the underlying problem, help your immune system, or shorten the duration of symptoms.
8. Prescription Gargle
Try it when: It’s downright painful to swallow.
How it works: If you get to this point, see your doctor. He or she can test for more serious conditions, like strep throat, and give you a prescription for a lidocaine hydrochloride gargle. “This type of solution numbs the area for a longer time than over-the-counter medications,” says Tucker. Your doctor will advise you either to gargle with the straight liquid or mix it with water or other ingredients to make a mouthwash.
Good to know: Don’t eat or drink for 30 minutes after using a prescription gargle, because in addition to numbing your throat, it can also deaden the sensation in your tongue (and you don’t want to risk biting it).
More From Real Simple: