Dry air, colds, flu, screaming about the lousy weather—all of it can all give you a scratchy throat this time of year. But there's no need to grab that bottle of neon-colored, tastes-like-Drano throat spray. "Natural cures really are good remedies for sore throats," says Benjamin Asher, MD, PC, a member of the Committee on Complementary and Integrative Medicine at the American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery and an expert on integrative medicine. In fact, he says, many natural sore-throat remedies can be made right at home. Which means you don't even have to expose your tender tonsils to frigid outdoor air.
Here are three ways to cope the next time your throat's feeling sore.
#1: Coat your throat. The standard remedy of a tablespoon of honey in warm water with lemon is a good natural remedy, says Dr. Asher. "You want to look for things that coat your throat," he adds, because they soothe irritation. He also recommends slippery elm lozenges and Organic Throat Coat tea from Traditional Medicinals, which contains the anti-inflammatory herb licorice.
#2: Rinse and relieve. Gargling with salt water or other solutions helps cut down on sore throats caused by irritants like dry air or allergies. In an Indian study of patients with postoperative tracheal tubes, gargling with a mixture of one teaspoon of licorice in eight ounces of water led to less-severe sore throats than those experienced by patients who gargled with ordinary water. The licorice mixture can be used as either a drink or as a gargle. (You can find licorice syrups or powders at stores that sell natural remedies, but make sure they contain real licorice.) And Dr. Asher adds that gargling with Bragg's organic apple cider vinegar is an effective treatment as well. "It seems to be cleansing," he says, "and it's not as harsh as other forms of vinegar." Another idea: In The Big Doctor's Book of Home Remedies (Rodale, 2009), Thomas Gossel, PhD, RPh, suggests adding a spoonful of bourbon or whiskey to a glass of warm water and gargling with that. It numbs the throat and is soothing at the same time.
#3: Prevent a relapse. Prevention is the best medicine for sore throats caused by irritation or viral infections, says Dr. Asher. For instance, if you notice a sore throat in the morning, it could be caused by dryness from breathing through your mouth in the night, or it could be triggered by acid reflux while you're sleeping. A humidifier can rectify the dry air, and arranging your bed or pillows so that your head is slightly elevated can prevent sore throats due to reflux. "If you change around your environment, you'll be less susceptible to sore throats," he notes. Alternatively, you can take a few tested-and-true cold prevention products sold at natural food stores. "Zinc does nothing for colds," Dr. Asher says, but he does like a Canadian product called Cold-FX, which contains a proprietary blend of compounds from ginseng, and another called Umcka, derived from an African herb called Pelargonium sidoides. The latter has also been found effective at preventing sinusitis and bronchitis. "In my own practice, I've found it's pretty amazing," he says.
Whatever you do, don't ignore a sore throat that lasts longer than a week, which could be a sign of a serious problem. "If you have severe pain that leads to difficulty swallowing, go see a doctor," Dr. Asher says, and if you experience localized pain—soreness on one side of your throat and not another, for instance—it's time to seek medical advice. Also, "any smoker with a persistent sore throat has got to see a doctor," he advises.