For millions of people every year, sore throats serve as the major warning signal that they are about to be hit with the flu, common cold or bacterial infection like strep throat. On a far less ominous note, allergies, dry air and pollutants can also cause them.
While there are lots of over-the-counter medications that can treat aching throats, there are also countless home and natural remedies to sooth the soreness for those that prefer more organic healthcare or just can’t make it to the pharmacy. Since it can often be difficult to separate the scientific fact from fiction, we’ve compiled a guide to the everyday, affordable materials that have been shown to relieve the pain and wipe out early infections.
Also known as “sweet root,” this perennial herb, commonly grown in southern Europe and Asia, has been used in medicine for thousands of years. Licorice is known to soothe and coat sore throats, and helps eliminate phlegm and mucous in the nose, throat and lungs. A 2009 study found that gargling with a licorice and water mixture gave patients with postoperative tracheal tubes less-severe sore throats than those that gargled with just water.
But licorice is not without its side effects. Dr. Benjamin Asher, a New York City-based ear, nose and throat specialist who is also an expert in integrative health, warns its active ingredient glycyrrhizin can increase blood pressure if ingested in high quantities. Luckily, there is a version of the herb without the harmful component, known as deglycyrrhizinated licorice (DGL), available in many forms, from chewable tablets to powder.
Chicken soup is a staple food when it comes to being sick, but it turns out it is good for more than its comforting taste. Research suggests the chicken and vegetable combo helps reduce upper respiratory cold symptoms, including soothing sore throats.
In 2000, researchers at the Nebraska Medical Center found that ingesting chicken soup inhibits the movement of neutrophils, the white blood cells that defend against infection, thereby reducing inflammation. While the researchers couldn’t pinpoint the exact ingredient that stalled the neutrophils, they found that store-bought soups varied widely in their effectiveness, meaning a wholesome, homemade soup might be the best way to go.
Apple Cider Vinegar
This brown liquid is thought to have antibacterial properties that can help fight the infection causing sore throats. The acidity of the vinegar decreases the pH of tissue, which helps prevent bacteria from growing on its surface. Raw apple cider vinegar also has the prebiotic inulin, which may increase your number of white blood cells and T cells and boosts your immune system.
However, despite being used to fight infections since around 400 BC, its effectiveness for directly treating or soothing sore throats has yet to be scientifically proven.
Mixing warm water, honey and lemon is a time-honored tradition to treat aching throats in many households. A 2007 study from Penn State University found that honey was as effective as dextromethorphan, the active ingredient in over-the-counter cold medicines, at relieving cough symptoms, and was rated more favorably for symptom relief during sleep.
Honey has also been shown to have antibacterial properties. However, it is important to note that honey should not be given to any child younger than age one due to the risk of infant botulism, a rare but dangerous type of food poisoning.
Some of the most popular alternative choices to the treatments discussed above:
Slippery elm – The bark of this North American tree is often used to treat gastrointestinal disorders, skin ulcers, coughs, and sore throats. More specifically, the tree’s mucilage—a sticky, gelatinous substance that contains protein and polysaccharides—has a demulcent effect, meaning it coats tissue and reduces pain and inflammation. Slippery elm is most often taken in the form of lozenges.
Pelargonium sidoides – While the mechanism is unknown, this African geranium species is antibacterial and has been shown in clinical trials to reduce cold symptoms ranging from nasal congestion and headaches to fever and sore throats. The plant is a major component in many cold medicines, including Umcka ColdCare.
Garlic – This bulbous plant is antimicrobial, says Dr. Asher, and therefore potentially useful in treating early-stage sore throats. Unfortunately, scientific studies haven’t linked directly linked the two and you risk having horrible breath.
While these treatments can be useful in relieving pain, they can’t cure more serious infections like strep. Dr. Asher suggests making an appointment with your physician if you see white patches on the back of your throat, are so sore you can’t eat or drink anything, or have a fever of 102 degrees Fahrenheit or higher for longer than two days [less time for children].
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