A sore throat can be the first sign of a cold, a side effect of strained vocal cords, or an indication of something more serious (like strep throat).
Regardless of the cause, your immediate concern when soreness strikes is how to get relief, fast. You may be tempted to run to your doctor, but some of the best treatments are home remedies and over-the-counter meds, says Jeffrey Linder, M.D., an internist at Brigham and Women's Hospital, in Boston.
Here are 10 to try the next time you're feeling scratchy, hoarse, or just plain sick.
One of the most effective treatments for sore throat is probably already in your medicine cabinet: an over-the-counter, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) such as Advil or Aleve.
"These medicines are combination pain relievers and anti-inflammatories, so they'll make you feel better and they'll also reduce some of the swelling associated with a sore throat," Dr. Linder says. "If you have a fever that's also contributing to your symptoms, they can help reduce that as well."
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Several studies have found that gargling several times a day with warm salt water can reduce swelling in the throat and loosen mucus, helping to flush out irritants or bacteria.
Doctors generally recommend dissolving half a teaspoon of salt in one cup of water. If the salty taste is too unpleasant for you, try adding a small amount of honey to sweeten the mixture slightly. (Just remember to spit the water out after gargling, rather than swallowing!)
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Lozenges and sprays
Sucking on cough drops stimulates saliva production, which can help keep your throat moist. But many varieties are no more effective than hard candies, Dr. Linder says. For an added benefit, choose brands with a cooling or numbing ingredient, like menthol or eucalyptus.
Over-the-counter sprays like Chloraseptic produce an effect similar to cooling lozenges. They won't cure your sore throat or help you fight off the underlying cold, but they may help dull the pain temporarily. Chloraseptic's active ingredient, phenol, is a local antiseptic that also has antibacterial properties, Dr. Linder says.
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Even if you don't have a cough (yet), over-the-counter cough syrups can help ease soreness. Like drops and sprays, they coat the throat and provide temporary pain relief.
If you're headed to work, be sure to choose a non-drowsy formula. But if you're having trouble sleeping due to a sore throat, a nighttime formula like NyQuil (which contains a pain reliever and an antihistamine) or Robitussin AC (guaifenesin and codeine) can relieve pain and help you get some shuteye.
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"Staying hydrated is very important, especially when you're sick and your throat is irritated or inflamed," Dr. Linder says. "You should be drinking enough fluid so that your urine is light yellow or clear. This keeps your mucous membranes moist and better able to combat bacteria and irritants like allergens, and makes your body better able to fight back against other cold symptoms."
What you drink is up to you, Linder adds. Water always works (ice cubes, too!), but you can also change it up with something slightly sugary, like a watered-down fruit juice, or something salty, like chicken broth.
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Tired of drinking water? A warm cup of herbal tea can offer immediate, soothing relief for a sore throat. What's more, non-herbal teas—whether they're made with black, green, or white leaves—contain antioxidants that are thought to strengthen immunity and ward off infection.
For an extra boost, add a teaspoon of honey. It'll help the "medicine" go down, and it has antibacterial properties that may help you heal faster.
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An age-old home remedy for colds, chicken soup can help soothe a sore throat, as well. "The sodium in the broth may actually have anti-inflammatory properties, and it can feel good going down," Dr. Linder says.
Soup has an added benefit when you're sick: Eating can be painful and difficult with a swollen or very sore throat, so sipping some liquid nourishment will ensure that you're getting the nutrients you need to fight off your infection.
Although there's no hard evidence that it works, sap from the marshmallow plant has been used for hundreds of years—usually in tea form—to treat coughs, colds, and sore throats. And while real marshmallow bears little relation to the puffy campfire treats that took its name, both may have sore throat-fighting properties.
According to anecdotal reports, modern-day marshmallows can help ease sore throat pain, possibly because the gelatin coats and soothes. "It's not the wackiest thing in the world," Dr. Linder says. "If your throat is really swollen and it really hurts to swallow anything, I can see how something slippery and sweet like marshmallows might provide some relief."
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It may not be the quickest solution, but getting some rest is probably the best thing you can do to battle the infection that caused your sore throat in the first place, Dr. Linder says.
"The vast majority of sore throats are caused by cold viruses, and we know that there's very little we can do to cure a cold once we've got it," he says. "Making sure your body is well rested will at least help it fight off the virus so you can get better sooner."
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Every once and a while—about 10% of the time in adults—a sore throat will be caused by a bacterial infection such as Streptococcus pyogenes. If, and only if, you test positive for strep throat or another bacterial infection, your doctor should prescribe an antibiotic. (Taking antibiotics for a sore throat caused by a virus will not be effective.)
Always take the full course of medicine, even if you feel better after a few days.
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While the idea of filling your nose with salty water may not exactly sound pleasant, there is some solid research to back up this at-home remedy. One study from 2008 found that children who rinsed with a saline nasal wash six times a day had improved cold symptoms.
That said, research published in Annals of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology found that daily rinsing may reduce the amount of protective mucus in the nose, which ups the risk of cold and other infections. So if you opt to try a net pot, do so only as needed and use distilled or sterile water, per the FDA's recommendation.
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Break out the humidifier
If your throat is aching, sitting in a room with dry air is bound to make it way worse. In order to avoid this unpleasant environment, try a humidifier! This handy machine fills the air with moisture, making it much easier and more pleasant to breathe, which should calm your symptoms as a result.
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A spoonful of honey
You know the phrase “a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.” But when it comes to easing a sore throat, a spoonful of honey will actually do the trick. Not only does the thick, syrupy texture coat and soothe your throat, but it’s also believed to possess antimicrobial properties that may help you heal faster.
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Is your throat so sore you can’t even swallow food without facing pain? Licking a popsicle or other icy treat can help temporarily ease your aching throat, by numbing the area. For a more nutritious option to test out this strategy, try one of our healthy popsicle recipes like mixed berry-basil, cucumber-pineapple-mint, or coconut matcha.