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 of them 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.
2. Saltwater gargle
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!)
3. 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.
4. Cough syrup
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.
“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.
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.
7. Chicken soup
An age-old home remedy for colds, chicken soup can help soothe a sore throat, as well. 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.
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.
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