Rest your body – and your voice
Sore throats are very common and usually get better by themselves within a week. Getting a good night’s sleep always helps to help fight off infection. The NHS advises those with a sore throat to stay well hydrated, although hot drinks should be avoided. Sucking on ice cubes, ice lollies or hard sweets can soothe the inflammation.
Ease the discomfort with over-the-counter options
If you feel uncomfortable, take paracetamol or ibuprofen. There are also medicated sore-throat lozenges and anaesthetic sprays available over the counter that claim to target pain in the throat with anti-inflammatories. The NHS cautions that “there’s little proof they help”, but a 2011 study of two different kinds of medicated lozenge found they brought relief and eased soreness and difficulty swallowing within minutes; effects lasted up to two hours post-dose.
Make your own gargle
Gargling with warm salt water may help to reduce inflammation. (It is not recommended for children.) Dissolve half a teaspoon of salt in a glass of partly cooled boiled water, gargle with the solution, then spit it out. Repeat as necessary. “It’s inexpensive and everyone can do it at home – I recommend this to most patients,” says Abraham Khodadi, a prescribing pharmacist who vlogs weekly about health on YouTube as Abraham the Pharmacist.
Don’t assume you need antibiotics
Most sore throats are caused by a virus, so they cannot be treated by antibiotics – even though in many cases they are prescribed anyway. Last year, sore throats accounted for nearly a quarter of inappropriate antibiotic prescriptions in England. Such prescriptions contribute to the global threat of antibiotic resistance. US researchers reported in 2013 that, from 1997 to 2010, about 60% of patients with sore throats received antibiotics, even though only about 10% needed them. Viral sore throats are accompanied by other cold symptoms that may include a runny nose, cough, red or watery eyes, and sneezing. The symptoms of streptococcal pharyngitis, “strep throat”, a bacterial infection, are similar, but likely to be more severe, and possibly accompanied by a high temperature or feeling hot and shivery.
Watch for irritants
Smoking cigarettes can cause a sore throat by irritating the windpipe. “When an irritant is introduced in the system, the body tries to get rid of it by coughing, which can result in more inflammation,” says Khodadi. Smoking also lowers immunity, which can lead to recurrent viral and bacterial infection, and weakens the lower oesophageal sphincter between the stomach and oesophagus (or food pipe), causing acid reflux from the stomach, which can irritate the throat. Other causes of a sore throat include pollution or irritants in the air, allergies, dry air, and changes in temperature, such as going from a warm office to the icy outdoors.
You can safeguard against sore throats by eating a healthy balanced diet, says Khodadi, as well as by having a flu jab. This should alleviate the need for supplements in otherwise healthy people, he says – although Public Health England has suggested taking a daily vitamin D supplement in winter, which may help to boost immunity.
See a healthcare professional
The NHS and PHE’s new campaign, Help Us Help You, aims to remind people this winter that pharmacists have the right clinical training to respond to the majority of sore throats. Until the end of winter, more than 200 Superdrug pharmacies in Great Britain are also providing a 10-minute, free sore-throat consultation service, which can include a swab test to determine whether the problem is viral or bacterial. Find your closest participating branch online. If your sore throat persists beyond a week or is recurring, see your GP.