While it might give you that podcast-ready, baritone voice, a sore throat is no fun at all. And if you’re looking for a quick fix, you might have already heard that you can gargle salt water. It turns out there is some evidence to back up the old remedy, but it’s not a cure.
What is a sore throat?
Sore throats can come from all sorts of ailments, including viral and bacterial infections. And while the precise causes vary, for the most part, when your throat hurts, it’s because of inflammation: all the fun stuff like swelling, pain, and redness that happen when your immune system is activated in a particular part of your body. Gargling with warm saltwater is one of those remedies that’s so commonly known and loved by doctors that there actually isn’t all that much science done on it. But it’s not considered harmful, and there are a couple of reasons why it might make you feel a little bit better.
Does gargling saline water work?
Gargling salt water probably reduces swelling, for example. Swelling is simply the accumulation of fluid during inflammation, which can cause soreness from all the extra pressure, or from your cells uncomfortably rubbing up against each other. And it’s well established that saltwater can bring fluid out of your cells through a process known as osmosis.
See, when you put solutions with few dissolved particles in contact with solution with lots of them, water wants to move to balance the concentrations out. And the salty water you gargle with, usually a half a teaspoon of salt per cup of water, is saltier than the fluids in the tissue of your inflamed throat. So, it’s believed that it draws some of the water out, thereby relieving some of the soreness associated with swelling, and maybe even flushes out some of the viruses or bacteria causing you harm.
The warmth of it may also come into play, as lots of studies have found that heat relieves pain, though it’s not entirely clear why that is. And there may be even more to it. A study in 2016 showed that a salt water rinse could also increase certain proteins that help heal inflamed tissue. But, this experiment was done in human cells in Petri dishes, not in people. In the end, we need more robust research to really determine exactly what warm saline water does to relieve a sore throat. But one thing seems clear: it doesn’t actually get rid of any underlying cause. So you might want to take that gargling advice with a grain of salt.