When you were a kid, being stuck at home when you were feeling under the weather had its perks. You’d get to cozy up on the couch and watch “The Price Is Right,” and your mom would make you chicken soup to help your cold symptoms and let you have a popsicle to soothe your aching throat.
But not all of your mom’s remedies were as tasty. Exhibit A: salt water. Moms around the world love mixing up that warm salt water for their kids to gargle, claiming it helps soothe the pain of a sore throat. Was mom right? Or have children been suffering through this yucky tasting remedy for generations?
Guess what? Your mom was right. Gargling those salty concoctions is recommended by doctors and backed by research.
The Science Behind a Sore Throat
A sore throat, also called pharyngitis, can be caused by a number of reasons, but most people associate them with mono, strep throat, flu, or tonsillitis. Sore throats usually mean you have an infection caused by a virus or bacteria (but smoking and allergies can also result in throat pain).
For example, a sore throat from mononucleosis is caused by a virus getting lodged into the lymph system, according to the American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery (AAO-HNS). This enlarges the tonsils (as well as the glands in the neck, armpits, and groin). Similarly, tonsillitis is a bacterial infection of the lymphatic tissues on each side of the back of the throat.
Regardless of the cause, a sore throat usually creates swelling and inflammation in the throat that makes it difficult to talk, breathe or swallow.
Here’s why salt water actually helps:
Home Remedies for Sore Throat
First and foremost, doctors recommend keeping the throat moist. A dry throat increases irritation, making throat pain worse. Drinking more liquids than usual helps (and can help prevent dehydration as well, which is more common when you’re ill).
Doctors recommend a number of other ways to keep the throat moist and soothe pain: Sucking on lozenges, ice chips, or popsicles, using a vaporizer or humidifier in the room, or consuming warm liquids like tea or brothy soups. (Bonus: The warm liquids can also help relieve congestion in the sinuses, which can help you get sleep when you’re stuffed up.)
But gargling salt water in particular may help your sore throat. It may sound like some bizarre old wives’ tale, but this method really works: Salt acts like a water magnet and pulls the excess fluid from the inflamed throat. This can help wash out the infection.
To gargle with salt water, mix 1/2 teaspoon of salt in one cup of warm water several times throughout the day, according to AAO-HNS.
Most sore throats can be treated at home, but see a doctor if your sore throat:
- Lasts longer than a week
- Comes with a high fever (above 101)
- Causes trouble breathing
- Recurs frequently
- Causes blood in your saliva
- Or comes with a rash or swollen lymph nodes.