Do you know how many times per day you swallow? Probably not. The only time you really become aware of swallowing behavior is after getting asked about it or when you have a sore throat. When faced with the pain and irritation of a sore throat, swallowing and even talking can become forced and unpleasant occasions. The good news is that most causes of a sore throat are short lived and will resolve within days under most conditions. The bad news is that this doesn’t really help you in the present when you feel like wincing every time you swallow. Fortunately, there are a number of home remedies for sore throats that you can use to keep the pain down until the underlying condition clears up.
Makeup of a Sore Throat: Causes and Symptoms
When we use the term “sore throat,” people usually refer to something other than a throbbing, dull pain that occurs with a sore foot or arm. Instead, a sore throat usually encompasses several symptoms such as dryness, irritation/inflammation, pain, difficulty swallowing and/or talking, and a scratchy feeling.
A sore throat is usually the result of what is known as pharyngitis, which is the technical term for a throat inflammation (pharynx = throat, -itis = inflammation). Infection is the most common cause, specifically viral infection. Bacteria can cause a sore throat too, and strep throat is the likely culprit when this is the case, but viruses are the most prolific causes of sore throats overall.
As for which viruses can cause a sore throat, the answer is “a lot.” Measles, mono, the common cold, chickenpox, herpes, HIV—name a virus and chances are it can either cause a sore throat on its own or do something else which will trigger pharyngitis as a byproduct.
Viruses and bacteria aren’t the only possible causes, either. Fungal infections, acid reflux, some medications, allergies, injury, temperature fluctuations, and more can all lead to a sore throat.
When a doctor is trying to diagnose the cause of a sore throat, their conclusion will be based on various signs and symptoms such as:
- Presence or absence of a cough
- Any lymph node swelling
- Fever (and grade of fever, if present)
- Status of tonsils
- Headache or aches elsewhere in the body
- Discoloration in/around the mouth
- Sneezing or runny nose
- Loss of appetite
- Difficulty swallowing
- Results of throat swab or blood test (if performed)
Sore Throat Home Remedies
It’s important to remember that you cannot “cure” a sore throat. A sore throat is a symptom, so it won’t go away until the underlying cause is resolved. While you are waiting for that to happen, there are certain things you can do at home to help relieve the pain and discomfort. Here are some popular options.
Gargling Warm Salt Water
Swollen cells are filled with excess fluids. Salt can draw out water from nearby cells and shrink them down. The problem, of course, is finding a way to get the salt to stay in your throat—hence, gargling.
Take a cup (8 ounces) of warm (not hot) water and mix in a half teaspoon of table salt. Gargle as you like and repeat up to three times per day as needed. It’s important not to go over three gargling sessions in a single day to avoid accidentally drying out any non-inflamed tissue in your throat. If you were curious, warm water is used because cold can aggravate an inflamed throat and hot has its own discomfort problems to worry about.
A hot toddy is often used as a nightcap, and it can come in handy if your pharyngitis is making rest difficult. The ingredient list is fairly basic and preparation is equally simple. First, assemble the following:
- 1 tablespoon of honey (or more, if you like the taste)
- 4 ounces hot water
- 1 teaspoon lemon juice
- 2 ounces of bourbon or whiskey (optional)
Yes, this home remedy includes alcohol. It’s optional; it’s a small amount; it’s diluted; and it can anecdotally help you sleep. In any case, pour the alcohol into a large mug along with the honey and leave the spoon in after. Pour in the hot water, and while pouring, try to get it to knock off as much honey from the spoon as you can. Add the lemon juice and stir. A quick zap in the microwave will heat things up but not boil (~1 minute), and enjoy.
If your throat is dry, a bit of steam can help add some needed moisture. If you count a stuffy nose among your symptoms, steam can help loosen the plugs and ease congestion as well. A nice, hot shower with the door closed and fan off will help build up a wave of steam that can be used. Alternatively, you try a more direct approach.
Get a medium or large bowl and fill it up about halfway with hot water. Lean over the bowl so that you are in a position to inhale the rising steam, and then drape a towel over your head to make a small tent to aid in the process. Optionally, you can add some scented oils you find soothing to help enhance the experience.
Milk and Honey
Warm milk is soothing, non-irritating, and can help you sleep. Honey is soothing, sweet, and tasty. Mixing the two together can be a nice way to ease your throat when it feels dry and raw. Milk also coats the lining of the throat when you drink it, which can further help its soothing behavior.
Incidentally, it’s a myth that milk increases phlegm or mucus production. What happens is that the coating milk leaves behind in your mouth and throat will temporarily thicken your saliva, which can be mistaken for phlegm. Having said that, drinking milk while you are already phlegm-riddled can increase the discomfort, even if production is not actually increased. Basically, don’t write off milk just because you’re worried about phlegm.
Speaking of dairy, ice cream and popsicles can feel soothing and help numb the throat, which reduces pain from pharyngitis. Psychologically, a sweet treat can also help relax your mood and make you feel more comfortable and restful. Sucking on ice chips can have a similar—but not as delicious—effect.
Technically, this is not a remedy, but it still needs to be pointed out. Sore throats can be aggravated by various environmental factors like smoke, cleaning fumes, smog, and so forth. Taking the steps needed to avoid conditions that could prolong your pharyngitis is just as important as using home remedies to limit the symptoms themselves. Also, keep in mind that most sore throats are caused by an infection of some sort, so erring on the side of staying home and resting can help keep coworkers and friends from catching your bug.