For thousands of years, healers have used salt as a remedy and as an ingredient to ward off illnesses. Today, medical practitioners still prescribe salt water gargles to ease the discomfort of a sore throat. Although sore throat pain usually goes away within a week, a warm salt water gargle can provide temporary relief for the scratchiness and discomfort.
Gargling with salt water not only eases throat pain, but it reduces inflammation, loosens mucus, kills bacteria, and breaks down secretions that lead to irritation. Salt water is hypertonic, meaning that it carries a higher osmotic pressure than human cell fluid. When a person gargles salt water, it draws cellular fluid to the surface, along with the virus or bacteria in the throat.
A salt water gargle is an inexpensive option for treating a sore throat at home. Physicians recommend stirring one-fourth to one-half teaspoon of salt into eight ounces of warm water. Continue stirring until the salt dissolves completely. Although any type of salt works, coarser salts like kosher or sea salt dissolve faster than table or iodized salts.
Gargling with salt water does not cure a sore throat or get rid of an infection, but it does provide pain relief while the body fights off the underlying cause of the symptoms. Ear, nose, and throat experts recommend gargling at least three to four times a day or every three hours until the pain goes away. Because salt can cause cells to dry out, it is important to drink plenty of water in addition to the gargling regimen.
After gargling with salt water, doctors say it is important to spit it out. This gets rid of some of the virus or bacteria causing the discomfort. Swallowing small amounts of salt water is not usually harmful. However, larger amounts can cause changes in the body’s sodium levels and lead to dehydration and other issues, so never swallow the gargling solution.
Most pediatricians recommend salt water gargles for children over the age of six who can understand directions not to swallow. The Institute for Clinical Systems Improvement recommends a combination of acetaminophen or ibuprofen, throat lozenges, drinking warm or cool liquids, and gargling with salt water as the best solution for easing sore throat pain.
In addition to relieving a sore throat, salt water gargles can be an effective method of easing mouth pain from other causes. They diminish pain from canker sores and promote healing. Because certain types of cancer treatments can cause ulcers and cuts in the mouth, doctors may recommend salt water gargles for their patients. This helps keep the mouth clean while also relieving discomfort.
Some dentists say that salt water gargles are an excellent short-term treatment for wounds in the mouth. Dentists often recommend a gargle or rinse following a tooth extraction because it is an excellent disinfectant. However, they advise against using it for longer than two to three weeks. It can change the pH balance in the mouth and cause problems over time.
People who depend on their voice for work, such as singers and public speakers, should avoid using mouthwashes or gargles containing alcohol. These products dry out the mucous membranes that line the throat. Instead, physicians recommend using a salt water gargle. Unlike alcohol, the solution will not cause dryness in the vocal folds and larynx.
Although salt water kills some bacteria, it does not kill all of the bacteria in the mouth and throat. A study in 2010 found that mouthwashes containing alum were more effective at reducing bacteria than salt water solutions. However, these mouthwashes are not as effective as salt water for pain and inflammation.
Salt water gargles are not widely studied, but researchers have explored the possible benefits. A 2010 Iranian study found that washing the throat and mouth with salt water was an effective preventative measure against respiratory tract infections . However, researchers say more studies are needed using larger sample sizes to determine the effectiveness of salt water for preventing these infections.
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