Waking up with a sore, scratchy throat is arguably one of the lousier ways to start the day. The pain, scratchiness, and irritation can affect your ability to talk, swallow, breathe, and sleep comfortably. In a word: they’re miserable.
Sore throats can often be a sign that a bigger bug is on the way, but there are several other possible causes. To find the real root (and the real solution), it’s important to figure out where in the throat the pain is localized.
The Three Parts of the Throat: Pharynx, Tonsils, and Larynx
The throat is made up of three distinct areas, all of which can become inflamed and irritated for various reasons. The pharynx refers to the cone-shaped space just behind the tongue and the nasal cavity. Pharyngitis, or inflammation of the pharynx, is the reason for 13 million doctor visits every year. It can be caused by viral or bacterial infections, allergies, or environmental factors like smoke and other pollutants.
The tonsils are two soft masses of tissue located at the back of the throat. Tonsillitis mainly affects children and teenagers (though adult tonsillitis does exist), and many people have a tonsillectomy to remove the lumps all together. A viral or bacterial infection normally causes tonsillitis.
The larynx (voice box) refers to the hollow area in the trachea (windpipe) that houses the vocal cords. This area of the throat is involved in breathing, phonating, and protecting the trachea from food and liquid aspiration—or, as we like to say, going down the wrong pipe. Infections can cause laryngitis, but it can also be caused by straining the vocal cords, choking on a bit of food, or an injury to the neck.
From Crummy to Cured: Identifying and Treating Your Sore Throat
Knowing what type of sore throat you’re dealing with can help you seek out the proper treatment. Viruses and laryngeal injuries are often treated by alleviating the symptoms with anti-inflammatory medicines, lots of water, and rest. And while not all bacterial infections require a round of antibiotics, it’s best to check with your doctor to be sure.
Sore throat remedies from the store can provide superficial relief, but the real cause of the discomfort—swelling, dryness, bacteria, etc.—is left unattended. Skip the sprays and lozenges and get to the root of the problem with these natural remedies for a sore throat.
Slippery Elm Bark
Best for: All types of sore throats
Native Americans have used the slimy, red inner bark of the slippery elm tree as a cure-all for fevers, sore throats, and upset stomachs for centuries. Soldiers in the American Revolution would later use the “magic” goo to heal gunshot wounds. Unsurprisingly, a natural remedy strong enough for gunshot wounds is also a great option for curing a sore throat.
Slippery elm contains mucilage, a sticky mixture of sugars responsible for the bark’s soothing qualities. The sticky mixture can’t be broken down by the digestive tract, allowing it to stay coated on the throat for long-lasting relief.
Our favorite way to get a healthy dose of slippery elm bark is by drinking a cup of Traditional Medicinal’s Throat Coat, a sweet, silky-smooth tea that’s trusted by teachers, opera singers, coaches, and chronic sore throat sufferers to not only treat sore throats but prevent them from happening altogether.
Gargling Salt Water
Best for: Sore throats caused by viral infections
This might not be the most appealing remedy on the list, but it’s a centuries-old remedy for even the scratchiest of throats for a good reason. Swishing a warm saltwater solution (approx. one teaspoon salt with eight ounces of water) around the back of your throat creates a high-salt barrier that acts as a magnet for water, drawing fluids from the throat’s tissues to “wash” the virus away.
A homemade saline solution won’t be enough to completely fight off the virus or shorten its duration. Still, it will certainly provide some much-needed relief from a bug that makes every single swallow as painful as the last. (Who knew we swallowed so many times in one day, anyway?!)
Apple Cider Vinegar
Best for: Sore throats caused by viral or bacterial infections
Apple cider vinegar (ACV) is a holistic health MVP due to its many antibacterial and antimicrobial qualities. The vinegar’s acidic nature also helps break down mucus in the throat and stop bacteria from spreading.
If swallowing a spoonful of vinegar sounds worse than suffering through a sore throat, try diluting one or two tablespoons in one cup of water. If you’re an adamant ACV lover, try making your own fire cider to treat and prevent sore throats with an all-natural cocktail of germ-fighting plants and herbs. (Pro-tip: all of the ingredients found in fire cider are great to consume by themselves to reduce the presence and spread of viruses, bacteria, and other harmful microbes.)
Best for: Sore throats caused by the common cold, allergies, or environmental pollutants
Whether mixed in tea or gulped down by the spoonful, a tablespoon or two of local honey a day can help fend off sore throats, coughs, and bad bouts of allergies. Honey is jam-packed with vitamins and minerals and boasts many antifungal and antiviral properties.
Cool Mist Humidifiers
Best for: Sore throats brought on by cold, dry winter air
As temperatures outside drop, temperatures inside rise, creating a warm, dry environment with as low as 10% humidity (the “comfortable” humidity range for humans is typically 25-50%). Breathing in all that warm, dry air can suck the moisture out of the nasal cavity and throat, causing raw throats and permanently-stuffed noses. A humidifier adds moisture to the air, allowing mucus to loosen from the nasal cavity and the throat’s tissues to rehydrate.
If you’re not interested in hearing the whirring mechanism of your humidifier 24/7, try placing a small to medium-sized humidifier next to your bed and only turning it on while you sleep. Doing so helps protect your pharynx and tonsils from being dried out in the depths of an open-mouth, full-snore slumber.
Best for: Sore throats that feel more swollen than scratchy
Sometimes a sore throat can worsen from a slight scratch to full-on swelling, in which case, steam inhalation might be your best bet for relief. While inhaling warm, moist air won’t kill the virus causing the issue, the steam works to reduce painful inflammation in the nasal cavity and throat tissue.
Stand in a hot, steamy shower for 20-30 minutes and slowly and deeply inhale as the water washes over you. (If anything, this alone is relaxing enough to make you forget about the sore throat for a while.)
For more concentrated steam, heat water to boiling in a saucepan. Carefully pour the hot water into a large bowl. Drape a towel over the back of your head and over the bowl so you can “trap” all of the steam rising from the hot water. Shut your eyes and place your head about 8 to 12 inches away from the water. Breathe deeply and slowly for no more than 15 minutes at a time. Repeat throughout the day as necessary.
Best for: Laryngeal injuries, severe laryngeal swelling caused by laryngitis
This might be the hardest sore throat remedy to stick with but one of the most necessary when it comes to laryngeal injuries, so we’re hoping the sweet doggo will help drive the point home.
Even though we call it a voice “box,” our vocal cords are actually two very delicate membranes that contract and expand each time we talk, hum, sing, or whisper. Air expelled by the lungs travels between these contracted membranes, causing the pitched vibrations we know as our voice. The louder we speak or sing, the more pressure and strain is put on these delicate vocal folds as they force themselves together to create more volume.
Damaged vocal folds will often swell, and some might even develop polyps or nodes after repeat injuries. Swollen vocal cords can’t fully contract, which means air passes through the hollow area without vibrating anything—the result is a hoarse, crackly, raspy voice, or as Phoebe from Friends liked to call it, her “sexy voice.”
The only way to truly allow these folds to heal is by letting them rest completely. And since they’re activated anytime we utter so much as a whisper, that means phonating of any kind must be avoided for at least 48 hours, also known as “vocal rest.”
Of course, the need to communicate doesn’t end when you decide to go on vocal rest, so keep a notepad, erasable whiteboard, or your phone handy to jot down notes and diminish the urge to break vocal rest and impede the healing process of your damaged voicebox.