The most common reason you may experience a sore throat is a viral infection, such as a cold or flu, which affects the pharyngeal area, or back of your throat. The Guardian characterizes the common cold as having1 “the twin distinction of being both the world’s most widespread infectious disease and one of the most elusive.”
Both the cold and flu can cause a sore throat, so it's helpful to know the difference. Both are viral illnesses but are caused by two different types of viruses. A cold is usually milder than the flu and does not generally trigger serious health problems.2
A cold comes on gradually, while the flu happens abruptly often starting with a fever. You don’t often feel fatigued and weak with a cold, but this is a common symptom with the flu. If you have a cold, you're more likely to have a runny or stuffy nose, but chest congestion and a cough are more common with flu.
Most people recover from the common cold in seven to 10 days, and adults average from two to three colds each year.3 Children can have even more. This common virus is one of the main reasons people miss work and children miss school.
Although the most common time of the year to get a cold is during the winter or spring months, it is possible to be infected with the virus anytime of the year. There is no cure for the common cold and since it’s a virus, antibiotics are not effective against it.
What Are Other Causes of a Sore Throat?
Other than flu or a common cold, sore throats can be triggered by other viral illnesses such as mononucleosis, chickenpox and croup.4 The most common bacterial infection that causes a sore throat is strep caused by streptococcus pyogenes or Group A Streptococcus.
If you have seasonal allergies or allergies to other proteins such as pet dander, you know a sore throat is part of your symptoms and may be exacerbated by postnasal drip. During the winter months, you can lessen the potential you’ll have a sore throat by keeping the humidity between 30% and 50%, as dry indoor air can cause your throat to feel scratchy.5
Other indoor irritants, such as air pollution, tobacco smoke or cleaning chemicals can also trigger chronic sore throat. Have you ever yelled at a ball game, talked loudly or sung for long periods without rest? This may strain the muscles in your throat, which may also feel like a sore throat.
Another reason for experiencing a sore throat is gastroesophageal reflux disease, also commonly called GERD. This is a disorder of your digestive system during which acid in your stomach comes up through the esophagus.
Since the pH of the stomach is acidic, to help break down food, and your esophageal mucosa is not designed to withstand that type of acidity, you'll experience heartburn and hoarseness from burning tissue.
More rarely, tumors or an abscess in the throat may trigger a sore throat and hoarse speech. Other symptoms associated with a tumor or abscess may include noisy breathing, a lump in the neck or throat and blood in your saliva or phlegm.
Natural Remedies That Shorten a Cold and Ease a Sore Throat
Although there are several reasons you may experience a sore throat, the most common cause is a cold. Dr. William Osler, Canadian physician and co-founder of Johns Hopkins Hospital, once famously said, “The only way to treat the common cold is with contempt.”6
Thankfully, since the hospital opened in 18897 several natural remedies have been discovered that help to shorten the length of a cold and offer relief from a sore throat.
|Zinc lozenges — Zinc is an effective natural remedy that has demonstrated its ability to reduce the length of your cold by an average of 33%.8 Zinc lozenges are most effective when started in the first 24 hours of a cold.9 Since multiple ingredients may interact, it’s important to check the label.
For instance, citric acid is one ingredient that should not be in zinc as it interferes with the release of zinc in your body. Interest in the zinc lozenge began in the early 1980s when a young girl dissolved a zinc tablet instead of swallowing it and soon got over her cold.
The benefit appeared to result from local effects, which prompted the young girl’s father to develop a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial10 to evaluate whether the results were coincidence or could be attributed to dissolving zinc in the mouth.
Results from the study showed that zinc lozenges shortened the common cold. More recent research has demonstrated both zinc acetate and zinc gluconate are effective in shortening a cold.11 For more information on using zinc lozenges, see “When Should You Take Zinc to Shorten Your Cold?”
|Hydrogen peroxide — In 1928, Dr. Richard Simmons put forth the hypothesis that a cold virus enters your body through the ear canal and not the nose. This was quickly dismissed by the medical community. By 1938, however, German researchers were having success treating colds and flu using hydrogen peroxide in the ear canal.12
Although the data and treatment have been ignored, I've had success treating many patients when I practiced. Like zinc, it must be started in the first 24 hours you begin experiencing symptoms, which I talk about in this short video.
|Apple cider vinegar — This has antibacterial properties and is highly acidic, so it can be used to make an inhospitable environment for a virus. Consider gargling with one-third cup mixed with warm water to help fight a sore throat.|
|Garlic — Although there is mixed evidence,13 the allicin in raw garlic is antimicrobial and may influence the length or severity of your cold. Crush the clove before eating it to release the active properties.|
|Oil of Oregano — This essential oil has strong antibacterial properties against several species, including Bacillus subtilis, Staphylococcus aureus, Pseudomonas and E. coli.14 It also has demonstrated strong antiviral activity against adenovirus, a group that causes respiratory illnesses.|
|Raw honey — While raw honey has antibacterial and antiviral properties, they aren’t strong enough in reasonable amounts to fight your virus. However, raw honey is as effective as cough syrup or cough drops for your cough.15 Remember that honey is a natural sugar, so in large amounts it may adversely impact your immune system and will affect your insulin and leptin levels.|
|Chicken Soup — Homemade chicken soup is soothing when you’re sick, and it contains the amino acid cysteine16 that may thin the mucus in your lungs, so it clears more easily.17|
|Vitamin C — Eating foods high in vitamin C may shorten the duration of your cold.18 Foods high in vitamin C include Brussels sprouts, papaya, butternut squash, red bell peppers, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, broccoli, kiwi and citrus fruits.|
|Echinacea tea — Echinacea is one of the more popular Native American medicinal plants that may help shorten your cold when you start drinking the tea on the first or second day. Researchers have found it will reduce the recurrence of a viral infection.19 Drinking two or three cups of hot tea a day may also help soothe your sore throat.|
|Propolis — This material is collected from trees by bees to maintain the hive. The extract may reduce the duration of cold symptoms when compared to a placebo.20|
Natural Remedies That Soothe a Sore Throat
These natural remedies may not shorten the duration or severity of your cold or sore throat, but they will help soothe your throat. This can help you feel better, rest more quietly and reduce discomfort enough so you can eat nutritious foods.
- Licorice root — One study showed that gargling with licorice root helped reduce postoperative sore throat, potentially by reducing the inflammation commonly experienced after being extubated.21 Glycyrrhizin is an active ingredient in licorice root and has shown some activity against the influenza virus, H2N2 and H5N1.22
- Herbal remedies — Herbal teas made with eucalyptus, peppermint, ginger or licorice may help relieve cold symptoms and soothe your sore throat.23
- Gargle with saltwater — Gargling with one-fourth to one-half teaspoon of salt in 8 ounces of warm water may help relieve the pain and discomfort from a sore throat.24
- Steam — Adding humidity25 to the air using a cool mist vaporizer or humidifier may help loosen congestion and reduce post-nasal drip, which is irritating to your pharyngeal tissue.
What About Prevention?
If you can prevent getting a sore throat, you're ahead of the game. Here are some strategies to employ all year round to reduce your potential risk of infection and boost your overall health.
- Exercise — In a meta-analysis of four randomized controlled trials26 scientists found that regular, moderate-intensity exercise may help to prevent infection with the common cold virus. While the researchers felt the numbers in this analysis were small, regular exercise has a significant effect on reducing your potential for several chronic diseases.
- Sleep — A reduction in quality sleep has a powerful influence over your immune system and therefore your risk of acquiring an infectious process. Additionally, it is implicated in the development of cardiovascular disease, depression and cancer.27 If you have trouble sleeping, check out “Top 33 Tips to Optimize Your Sleep Routine“ for ideas to get a better night of rest.
- Handwashing — Handwashing tops the list of strategies to prevent acquiring or spreading contagious illness. Unfortunately, too many don’t do it correctly. To discover how to wash your hands for the best results see “Proper Handwashing — and Drying — Is the No. 1 Way to Prevent Spread of Contagious Disease.”
- Fermented Foods — The strength of your immune system can be found in your gut microbiome. Fermented foods help provide your body with the variety of bacteria you need to support your health and immune system. For a deeper discussion see “Fermented Foods Top the Superfood List.”
- Vitamin D — This fat-soluble vitamin is essential to the function of your immune system and may help prevent a cold or flu. Suboptimal levels impair your immune response and the only way to know if you are deficient is a test. To learn more about adequate levels, the benefits to your overall health and how to test at home, see “Vitamin D Protects Against Infections.”
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