A sore, scratchy throat is annoying, but probably not alarming enough to call your doc. Good thing, too, because you may be better off soothing your throat at home: A 2014 British study found that most of the time that people visit their doctors for a sore throat, antibiotics aren’t even necessary.
Why? Bacterial infections are responsible for a small percentage of scratchy swallowing cases. Allergies, dry air, and viruses like the common cold and flu can all be culprits. And while you should always see your doctor if symptoms persist, start soothing your sore throat with these natural remedies at home. (There's no cure for the common cold--but that doesn't mean you can't get relief. Here are the 10 Best Over-the-Counter Meds.)
Swishing sea water has merit: Salt kills bacteria, which is why it’s used as a preservative, said Marcia Degelman, author of “Explaining Health” and a massage therapist at the University of California San Francisco’s Osher Center for Integrative Medicine. Studies show that gargling salt water can help reduce the pain in your throat and fight whatever infection is causing it. In fact, a study in The American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that 40 percent of people who were sick and gargled salt water three times a day saw an improvement in their upper respiratory tract infection. Try this: mix 1 teaspoon of salt with ½-cup of warm water, and gargle for 30 seconds, Degelman recommends.
Honey not only contains beneficial vitamins, but also helps boost your immune system and fights infections. And the natural nectar is actually more effective than cough syrup because honey coats the throat better, according to a 2012 study in Pediatrics. Researchers point out that the darker the honey the better, thanks to its high levels of antioxidants. Make a tea of hot water and a heaping teaspoon of honey--and squeeze in the juice from half a lemon, Degelman suggested. Lemon is astringent, meaning it shrinks your mucous membranes, so this tea will do double duty to help your throat. (These 6 Places You're Most Likely to Get Sick are crawling with bacteria.)
Chicken noodle soup
A Japanese study found that chicken contains an amino acid which helps thin out mucus in the lungs, allowing you to cough up the bad stuff faster and remedy a huge cause of sore throats--postnasal drip. Plus a landmark study from the University of Nebraska Medical Center proved that the famous chicken noodle soup really can help fight off a virus by acting as an anti-inflammatory. Stick to a vegetable-packed version, though. Study author Dr. Stephen Rennard, believes it’s the combination of vegetables, chicken, and the broth that makes mom’s soup so powerful.
Sage and Echinacea
Sage leaves are used as remedy for hoarseness or coughs, but a Swiss study found it’s even better for your throat when combined with other herbs. Researchers found people who used a sage and Echinacea throat spray saw just as much relief in their irritation as those who used chemical sprays. Researchers suggest something like HerbPharm’s Soothing Throat Spray ($13, herb-pharm.com).
You won’t want to, but sucking on a clove of garlic like a lozenge will help your throat and your infection.
“Garlic contains allicin, a powerful antibiotic, which helps it kill viruses and bacteria,” Degelman said.
Pop in a raw clove as soon as you feel a tickle in your throat to ward off infection before it takes hold, she instructs. Keep it in as long as you can stand, ideally 5 to 10 minutes. (Learn what you have--and the quickest way to fix it--with our Ultimate Cold and Flu Symptom Solver.)
Licorice root has been used in Eastern medicine to treat sore throats, ulcers, and viral infections for centuries, and it’s best when mixed with water and gargled. A study in Anesthesia & Analgesia found that patients who gargled licorice root water saw less throat pain post-surgery than those who just drank water. You can buy licorice root in powdered form or extracts, which can be mixed with water and swished.
Zinc ions are antimicrobial agents, so they help to fight infections, explains Degelman. Plus a 2011 Finnish study found that zinc lozenges help shorten the duration of a cold. Pick up one with vitamin C, which also helps your immune system fight off the illness, Degelman recommended. She likes Nature’s Way Zinc Lozenges with Echinacea & Vitamin C. ($4, drugstore.com)
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