Proven Ways to Treat a Sore Throat (and the Internet Myths That Don’t Actually Work)

Proven Ways to Treat a Sore Throat (and the Internet Myths That Don’t Actually Work)
Photo: LightField Studios, Shutterstock

A sore throat isn’t exactly the end of the world, but when you have that scratchy, hurts-to-swallow feeling, you’re surely looking for relief beyond an endless stream of cough drops. What other scientifically-backed, at-home methods can you use to soothe the pain?

It can be difficult to pinpoint the exact cause of your sore throat, which could be due to dry air, allergies, or a bacterial or viral infection — though infections from viruses (like the cold and flu) are the most common cause of sore throats (all the more reason to wear a high quality mask when you’re out and about). A sore throat should go away after three or four days, but in the meantime, here are reliable at-home remedies to get relief fast.

Note: These are tips for symptom relief and aren’t going to combat a bacterial or viral infection.

Gargle with salt water

This solution isn’t as fast-acting as some of the options below, but it’s the best first step to try and tackle the issue for long-term relief. Gargling with warm salt water is widely proven to reduce inflammation and soothe your throat.

Here’s how to do it:

  1. Combine 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon of table salt with eight ounces of warm water.
  2. Stir until the salt dissolves.
  3. Gargle with it for several seconds and spit it out.

Repeat the salt gargle several times each day for symptomatic relief.

Optional: Throw in 1/4 teaspoon baking soda, which can further protect against inflammation.

Steam and humidity

While dry air is harsh on your sinuses, steam provides much-needed moisture to your airways. Take an extra hot, steamy shower or run a humidifier throughout the night in order to prevent and soothe a sore throat.

Lozenges (or hard candies)

Throat lozenges are everyone’s go-to when it comes to numbing the pain, and for good reason. Seek out lozenges containing menthol, which acts as a mild anesthetic. If all you have on hand are hard candies, they can also help stimulate saliva production and provide the moisture your throat needs right now.

Hot beverages

Warm liquids like tea or soup help loosen mucus to decrease stuffiness and make it easier to swallow with a sore throat. The warm temperature is what provides the relief, so don’t fret over the choice between chamomile and peppermint tea.

Cold beverages

On the flip side, sometimes what you need is the numbing affect of something extra cold. Instead of sipping on tea, consider sucking on a popsicle or ice cubes.

Honey

Honey is a trusted method for coating and soothing your throat. One study even found that honey was more effective at curbing nighttime coughs than common cough suppressants. Add honey to your tea, or mix a tablespoon or two into a glass of warm water.

Rest

Sleep is key to recover from whatever infection might be causing your sore throat in the first place. While you rest, keep your head propped up to make it easier to breathe if you’re also congested.

Less-than-scientifically proven remedies

The following methods to soothe a sore throat are all over the internet, but not necessarily scientifically sound. Some might even cause more harm than good:

  • Lemon. While many people swear by lemon tea (or the lemons in a delicious hot toddy), acids are a risky business when it comes to sore throats.
  • Garlic. Garlic is loaded with antibacterial properties, but the advice to chew on raw garlic cloves isn’t exactly backed up by research.
  • Hot sauce. This tip can be traced back to an argument from Penn Medicine that the capsaicin in peppers can fight inflammation and provide pain relief. However, the risks may outweigh the benefits if you add hot sauce to an already irritated throat.

What to avoid

The following are also recommended all over the internet, but you might want to reconsider giving them a shot:

  • Apple cider vinegar. Even if it does have some antibacterial properties, it doesn’t have the superpowers that many online sources claim it does.
  • Essential oils. Despite the hype, essential oils are often snake oils. Most need more research to be proven as effective and trusted as safe.

When to see a doctor

Mayo Clinic recommends seeing a doctor if your sore throat lasts longer than a week and is accompanied by any of the following:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Difficulty opening your mouth
  • Joint pain
  • Earache
  • Rash
  • Fever higher than 38.3°C
  • Blood in your saliva or phlegm
  • Frequently recurring sore throats
  • A lump in your neck
  • Hoarseness lasting more than two weeks
  • Swelling in your neck or face

Otherwise, while antibiotics usually aren’t prescribed for sore throats, you’re safe to try an over-the-counter pain reliever.

Finally, if you’re looking for tea recommendations, I swear by ginger turmeric. It’ll soothe your sore throat and soothe your soul.

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