Sore throats can be a real pain in the neck.
According to the National Institutes of Health, viral infections cause most sore throats, usually triggered by the common cold or flu.
Antibiotics, of course, don’t work against viruses and therefore can’t soothe the throat, but there are several options you can try.
Make some noise
Gargling with salt water may seem like an old wives’ tale, but experts say it can be very effective way to ease a sore throat. A 2016 study found that rinsing with saline (salt water) helped heal wounds.
Salt draws up moisture and can prevent bacteria from growing; that’s why it was used for centuries to cure meat.
Try gargling at least once an hour with 1 teaspoon of salt in an 8-ounce glass of warm water. Gargling more often with salt water is just fine, but don’t add more salt. It can dehydrate and, if the throat membranes are too dry, make the pain worse.
Adding baking soda to the salt mixture is another popular recommendation. Baking soda neutralizes acid and inhibits the growth of yeast. The American Cancer Society, which recommends this for cancer patients experiencing mouth or throat pain, suggests mixing a quarter-teaspoon of baking soda and an eighth of a teaspoon of salt into 1 cup of warm water. As with salt, gargle, but don’t swallow; too much soda can cause stomach issues.
If you can’t stand salt or soda water, try plain, but keep gargling. One 2005 study split 387 healthy volunteers into three groups and asked the first to gargle three times a day with iodine-laced water and the second with plain water. The third group didn’t gargle at all. At the end of 60 days, the group that gargled with plain water was 36% less likely to get sick.
Stay hydrated to thin mucus secretions and soothe your irritated throat. Hot liquids such as tea and broth are good choices, because the warmth soothes pain. Broth-based chicken soup even has a tiny bit of science behind it.
One study in a lab Petri dish found that chicken soup has anti-inflammatory effects, while another study of 15 people found that grandma’s favorite remedy was better than hot or cold water at reducing mucus. A drainage of mucus, called post-nasal drip, is another common cause of sore throats.
Drinking very cold ice water or sucking on something cold may seem counterintuitive, but cold can numb the throat. But don’t choose cold orange juice or other acid-based liquids; they will only intensify the pain.
You can also keep the throat moist by sucking on a piece of hard candy or, better yet, a medicated lozenge. The medicated lozenge will probably contain menthol or benzocaine, which have a numbing effect.
Add honey or herbs
Adding honey to your tea or other hot liquid may also help. Honey has known antimicrobial properties, which speed healing. Studies in children have shown that honey is better than popular over-the-counter cough suppressants and Benadryl for reducing nighttime coughs and sleeping problems.
Chamomile tea is a popular natural remedy due to its anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and mild astringent qualities. It also has sedating effects and is often used as an anti-anxiety and sleep aid. A 1990 study found that inhaling steam with chamomile extract eased common cold symptoms, but experts say further research is needed to confirm those findings.
Peppermint tea is also said to be helpful for sore throats, due to its similarity to menthol. But there’s little science behind those claims. Peppermint has mostly been studied as a treatment for irritable bowel syndrome.
You’ll also find suggestions on the internet to use apple cider vinegar to treat a sore throat, probably because of its antimicrobial characteristics. But the level of acid in vinegar is high — about the same as stomach acid — and might irritate rather than soothe.
Know the danger signs
If your sore throat is severe, meaning extremely painful, and is accompanied by a fever or swollen glands, you might have a bacterial infection and should see a doctor. The most common bacterial throat infection is strep throat, caused by group A streptococcus bacteria. It’s highly contagious and can spread through a home or school quickly. Though adults certainly get strep, children between 5 and 15 are the most likely to develop strep and pass it along to family members.
To diagnose strep, your doctor will do a throat swab and, if positive for streptococcus, start you on a round of antibiotics, which you should finish. Don’t rush back to work or school; you’ll remain contagious for at least 24 hours after beginning the medication.
It’s also important to treat strep because a lingering infection can lead to middle ear infections, kidney inflammation, scarlet fever and even toxic shock syndrome.
There’s even a bizarre reaction that can happen in children with strep, called PANDAS, or Pediatric Autoimmune Neuropsychiatric Disorders Associated with Streptococcal infections. Overnight, children will begin to exhibit obsessive-compulsive behavior, tics and severe tantrums that seem psychotic as their antibodies attack their brains and not the bacteria. Immediate treatment with antibiotics is key to preventing long-term damage.