Does Gargling With Salt Water Ease a Sore Throat?

From the WebMD Archives

By Chris C. Anderson

When your throat turns to sandpaper and every bit of food and liquid that goes down your gullet feels like it’s a bill trying to pass the Senate, unlike a politician you become more than eager to try to find a way to move things forward.

A sore throat is a miserable thing to deal with. You don’t realize how many times you swallow during the day until every swallow becomes a painful undertaking.

Mothers and grandmothers the world over hold the belief that gargling with warm salt water is a surefire way to soothe a sore throat. But does it actually work? Is there any scientific merit to it?

We spoke with Sorana Segal-Maurer, MD, chief of the Dr. James J. Rahal Jr. Division of Infectious Disease at New York Hospital Queens, andBrian P. Currie, MD, MPH, vice president and senior medical director of NYC's Montefiore Medical Center, to get the scoop on this old-school sore-throat home remedy.

The Rumor: Gargling with warm salt water can ease a sore throat

“Ew, gross! Mom, I’m not gonna gargle with that!” There’s nothing appealing about swishing warm, salty water around in your mouth. Kids know this. Still, they take their moms at their word and carry on with the tradition.

Where did mom get this remedy? Probably from grandma. Where did grams get it? Probably from her mom. And so on. Gargling with warm salt water “likely came about before over-the-counter medications became the norm,” says Currie.

Fair enough. But does it really work?

The Verdict: Yes, gargling with warm salt water really will soothe a sore throat

As it turns out, mom was right about this one: Gargling with warm salt water actually does provide symptomatic relief -- and it has preventative benefits, too.

Says Segal-Maurer, "You’re creating a high-salt barrier and you’re pulling out a lot of fluids from the tissues in the throat area, so you’re washing the virus out. The salt functions as a magnet for water. It’s good for symptomatic relief. And you end up swallowing some of it, so it’s sort of helping you with dehydration as well.” (To clarify: The swallowing bit is incidental -- it just tends to happens when gargling. You’re not meant to actually drink the warm salt water.)

Gargling with warm salt water won't magically fix your sore throat, however. "It’s certainly not going to cure a viral infection," says Segal-Maurer. "It’s not enough [salt] to have an antiviral effect.”

Give it a try, though, if you want to feel a bit better. There are plenty of different salt-water-gargle recipes out there but a saltwater gargle — 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon salt dissolved in an 8-ounce glass of warm water — can temporarily relieve a sore or scratchy throat.

In addition to soothing a sore throat, gargling with warm salt water helps relieve toothache symptoms as well. And minus the salt, regular gargling of plain water may help prevent upper respiratory tract infections, according to research. We find that advice easy to swallow.