In elementary school, I recall my school nurses having only three tools in their arsenal: ice packs, saltine crackers and little cups to gargle salt water with. Ice packs make sense. Eating some crackers makes sense when you’re a little kid who barely understands the feeling of hunger and is forced to adhere to a rigid eating schedule. But gargling salt water? Did that actually do anything?
In fact, you should probably add it to your own adult ailment-fixing toolkit. While it won’t necessarily cure your sore throat, there’s a decent chance it will help. Part of the pain from a sore throat comes from swelling. When you have a sore throat as the result of a virus or bacteria — as opposed to something like swallowing food that’s way too hot — your throat is inflamed with fluid.
Salt water is effective in soothing this by drawing out some of that fluid, as well as some of the virus or bacteria cells. The salt attracts the liquids, while the water helps moisturize the surface of the throat and ease some of the scratchy sensation.
Gargling salt water won’t kill off the virus or bacteria causing the symptoms, nor will it physically remove them entirely. However, it can make enough of an impact to at least allow your throat to feel a little better, even if only temporarily. The Mayo Clinic recommends mixing one-quarter to one-half teaspoon salt with 4 to 8 ounces of warm water (it’s gotta be warm, or else the salt won’t dissolve). It’s safe to do this two to four times a day.
In addition to helping calm an irritated throat, there’s some evidence that gargling salt water can help prevent respiratory issues for people who are susceptible to them. Nasal salt rinses can clean out your nasal passages by removing the dirt, bacteria and mucus that may be coating them if you’re sick or have allergies. Gargling salt water can therefore have similar effects on your throat. One key difference between the two, though, is that it’s safe to use tap water when gargling salt water, but not when shooting it up your nose. Your throat can handle brain-eating amoebas just fine, but your delicate little nose membranes can’t.
If your experiences gargling salt water as a child completely scarred you, there are some alternatives. Some doctors say that mouthwash could provide similar relief, while others say that eating some salty chicken soup will essentially perform the same function on the throat. None of this will be some magic cure, but then again, there’s no such thing as a magic cure for a cold or flu, anyway. A case of strep throat, on the other hand, will need to be magically cured by antibiotics, so check with your doctor about that.