Your saliva goes down like sandpaper, and every cough makes you wince. Sore throats can be rough. But some of your favorite home remedies may just be masking the pain—not resolving it, says Brett Comer, MD, a head and neck surgeon at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine.
Of course, if you're suffering, there's nothing wrong with a little relief. Honey, warm tea, and cough drops can all calm the throat irritation and inflammation that are causing your agony, Comer says. But if you really want to be rid of your sore throat? Here are your best remedies.
Gargle with salt water.
Salt water can calm inflammation by knocking down the kind of acidity that leads to throat irritation. It may also help draw infections or irritants to the surface of your throat, where your body is better able to deal with them. Dissolve ¼ to ½ teaspoon of salt in eight ounces of warm water, advises Mia Finkelston, MD, a Maryland-based family physician who also treats patients via LiveHealth Online. Gargle every hour or two.
Drink extra-cold liquids.
Those first few swallows may not be pleasant. But just as icing a sprained ankle can dull the pain and prevent swelling, drinking icy liquids can both numb your throat and calm some of the inflammation that's causing you pain, Finkelston says.
Suck on an ice pop.
If you eventually get sick of downing ice water, a popsicle can be just as effective at fighting off the inflammation in your throat. Just be sure to steer clear of citrus flavors which can trigger acid reflux and in turn, worsen your symptoms.
Skip acidic foods.
Acid reflux is a common cause of a sore throat, Comer says. That means anything you do to stoke acid reflux could prolong or worsen a sore throat. For that reason, Comer recommends avoiding soda, fried foods, and citrus fruits like oranges and lemons. Also, skip food altogether for an hour before bed. Eating before you lie down can promote reflux, experts warn.
If you think reflux is to blame for your sore throat, taking antacids or other reflux meds could help knock out your pain at its source, Finkelston says. (Note that this should not be a long-term solution.)
Sip turmeric tea.
Turmeric is the trendy supplement du jour, and one you should definitely be adding to your diet. While some of its benefits—including its potential to prevent cancer or brain diseases—require more study, its anti-inflammation powers are well-established and may help relieve your sore throat, Finkelston says. Add a few dashes to your tea or salt-water gargle.
Pop this pill.
Ibuprofen can ease swelling and irritation, so it can help put a stop to the coughing and throat-clearing that prevents your sore throat from healing, Finkelston says. Just be sure to take your ibuprofen with food, and follow the dosing instructions on the label.
Humidify the air.
Dry air can irritate a sore throat, prolonging your recovery time, according to Mayo Clinic experts. Take a steamy shower or plug in your humidifier to help relieve the pain. But if you go with the latter suggestion, be sure to scrub out your machine before turning it on. (Here's exactly how to clean a humidifier.) Left neglected, a humidifier's water tank can breed bacteria and fungi, which then get pumped into the air, according to a U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSP) safety alert. While this may not make your throat feel any worse, it could cause flu-like symptoms or exacerbate allergies or asthma.
Open your nose.
If part of the reason you’re breathing through your mouth is because your nose is clogged, open it with an over-the-counter medicated decongestant nasal spray or drops, such as Afrin or Neo-Synephrine. But you should limit its use to a day or two.
Take time to recharge.
A tired body means a tired immune system. If you're worn out, your body will struggle to heal itself. So get some rest. Time in bed or away from life's usual stressors can help recharge your immune system and relieve your sore throat, Finkelston says.
And rest your voice, too.
If you developed a sore throat after yelling and cheering at a concert or sporting event, you likely strained your vocal cords. The best treatment for any overworked muscle is rest. But resting your voice doesn't mean you should whisper. This actually strains your voice more than speaking. Instead, try talking at a lower volume than usual until the hoarseness and soreness subside.
Toss your toothbrush.
Believe it or not, your toothbrush may be perpetuating—or even causing—your sore throat. Bacteria collect on the bristles, and any injury to the gums during brushing injects these germs into your system. As soon as you start feeling ill, throw away your toothrbush. Often that’s enough to stop the illness in its tracks. If you do get sick, replace your brush again when you start to feel better and when you feel completely well. That keeps you from reinfecting yourself.
Get help for heartburn.
Chronic sore throats may be caused by acid reflux, when acids leak out of the stomach into the throat, causing a chronic low-grade throat irritation. Signs of this include heartburn, a bitter taste in the mouth, and a sore throat after eating or while lying down. As a first-line treatment, try an over-the-counter antacid such as Tums or Mylanta.
Alleviate your allergies.
Airborne allergies, such as pollen, indoor molds, or dust mites, can cause chronic low-grade throat inflammation. To start, try taking an over-the-counter nonsedating allergy medication containing cetirizine hydrochloride, such as Zyrtec or Claritin.
Do you need to go to the doctor?
A strep throat is an extremely painful bacterial infection that may come on suddenly. Fortunately, the vast majority of bacterial infections, including strep, generally respond quite well to one course of an appropriate antibiotic. Because sore throats can have so many causes, some symptoms need to be evaluated by a doctor. These include:
- Severe, prolonged, or recurrent sore throats
- Difficulty breathing, swallowing, or opening the mouth
- Joint pains, earache, or a lump in the neck
- Rash or a fever above 101°F
- Hoarseness lasting 2 weeks or longer
- White patches on your throat (look with a flashlight)
- Blood in saliva or phlegm