- Brad DeSilva, MD, otolaryngologist at Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center
- Chantel Strachan, MD, primary care physician and assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University Irving Medical Center in New York
- Inna Husain, MD, otolaryngologist affiliated with Community Hospital in Munster, Indiana
- Neal Patel, DO, family medicine specialist with Providence St. Joseph Hospital in California
- Shawn Nasseri, MD, Harvard Medical School- and Mayo Clinic-trained ear, nose, and throat specialist
To find out what not to eat, and what to try when you have a sore throat, we turned to a handful of experts who regularly treat patients with sore throats. Here’s what they had to say.
“Foods that are spicy or have hot sauce and peppers can irritate the throat because they stimulate mucous production, and increase inflammation.”—Neal Patel, DO
3 foods to avoid when you have a sore throat
1. Spicy and acidic food
Spicy foods have health benefits galore when you're feeling well, but they aren’t great for sore throats. Even if you’re used to eating the hottest food, this is not the time to indulge your love for ghost peppers. “Foods that are spicy or have hot sauce and peppers can irritate the throat because they stimulate mucous production, and increase inflammation in that area,” says Neal Patel, DO, a family medicine specialist with Providence St. Joseph Hospital in California.
Acidic foods have the same effect. High-acid ingredients like tomatoes and citrus fruits, like oranges, grapefruit, and lemons, can have a stinging effect on the sore tissue lining of the throat, according to primary care physician Chantel Strachan, MD, assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University Irving Medical Center in New York . “They can also indirectly trigger acid reflux from the stomach, making sore throat pain much worse,” she adds.
2. Salty and crunchy food
Foods with rough surfaces can feel like sandpaper when your throat hurts. And if they’re coated in salt, snacks like pretzels or potato chips may also exacerbate your pain. “Foods that are salty can dry out the throat even more, which can cause irritation when trying to swallow,” says Dr. Patel, who cautions that it’s not just salty foods you should avoid: He advises against eating anything with a rough or hard surface like nuts, raw carrots, or sugar candies.
3. Alcohol in any form (and smoking)
You may have heard that a hot toddy made with whiskey or rum is a good remedy for a sore throat, but it’s not the alcohol that makes this drink feel good going down—it’s the honey. “Like spicy food, alcohol can further irritate a sore throat, plus generate acid reflux,” says Dr. Strachan. Alcohol also dehydrates you, making your temperature rise and your sore throat worse.
If you smoke when you drink, that’s a double-negative health whammy, with or without a sore throat. In addition to releasing hundreds of chemicals into your system, smoking and vaping generate dry heat. This can severely irritate your throat, causing soreness and inflammation, even when you’re not sick. If you are sick, smoking can hamper recuperation and lengthen the amount of time you spend feeling awful.
What kinds of foods can actually help a sore throat?
Okay, so you're all set to skip the margarita happy hour with chips and spicy salsa. But you might be wondering—what should I eat with a sore throat?
Dr. Patel says that honey can be particularly beneficial, as long as it’s not accompanied by rum. “Honey is a well-known, traditional remedy that can help heal the throat since it has antibacterial, antiviral, and anti-fungal properties,” he says.
Turmeric and ginger can also help ease a sore throat, says Dr. Patel. “These are high in antioxidants that decrease inflammation and hasten the healing process. Try adding turmeric and black pepper to warm tea, and ginger to foods that feel cool on the throat, like smoothies,” he adds.
"Frozen popsicles are another good way to calm an inflamed throat, plus increase hydration," adds Dr. Strachan.
What drinks help sore throats?
One thing you'll definitely want to avoid when your throat is aching is letting yourself get dehydrated. So, what to drink for a sore throat? “I always recommend honey with warm tea and warm soup to my patients,” Dr. Strachan says.
The heat in that cup of tea is going to be especially helpful. "Warm teas cause the vessels of the throat and the muscles to open and relax more, thereby soothing the sore throat," Harvard Medical School- and Mayo Clinic-trained ENT and allergy expert, Shawn Nasseri, MD, previously told Well+Good. "Icy drinks can sometimes cause throat spasms which definitely don't feel comforting," he says. (But if that popsicle feels delightful, stick with it.)
While just about any tea will feel soothing, one double-blind study showed that tea made with licorice root is especially effective at minimizing pain. "Licorice root contains glycyrrhizin, which has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that may help soothe a sore throat," Brad DeSilva, MD, an otolaryngologist at Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, has pointed out to Well+Good. If you don't like the taste of licorice root, though, Dr. Nasseri suggests chamomile, slippery elm, cardamom, mint, or echinacea. "These all typically soothe, coat, and comfort without overwhelming the palate," he says.
And what drinks to avoid
As much as you might crave a hot toddy, go ahead and make it a virgin for the reasons listed above. You're going to also want to avoid super acidic drinks like lemonade or orange juice, which might trigger acid reflux (or simply sting going down).
Is coffee bad for a sore throat? If you're jonesing for your morning cup of joe, know that coffee has both benefits and drawbacks when you're under the weather. For starters, the acidity might be too painful on your throat. The caffeine can also mess with your sleep and cause dehydration. On the other hand, the antioxidants and polyphenols in coffee can give you a helpful immune boost when you're sick, as Nashville-based dietitian Jenny Beth Kroplin, RD, has told Well+Good in the past.
You also probably don't want to be gulping down too much dairy when you've got a cold that comes with a sore throat. Though some people enjoy the feeling of warm milk or cool yogurt, most experts advise against it. “I recommend avoiding dairy when my patients are sick because...the fat in dairy combines with airway secretions and can create a thick, sticky mixture. This can coat the throat and make you more uncomfortable and feel the need to clear it more, which can further irritate the throat,” Inna Husain, MD, an assistant professor and the section head of laryngology at Section Head of Laryngology's department of otolaryngology at Rush University Medical Center, has told Well+Good. (Yes, that means you'll want to skip the ice cream when you're dealing with a sore throat, too.)
Home remedies to soothe a sore throat
If you want to get rid of a sore throat quickly, there are also a few strategies you can use, aside from what you're eating and drinking all day.
Gargle salt water
One of the best ways to soothe a sore throat at home is to gargle with warm saltwater, says Dr. Strachan. The salt draws out fluids from your mouth and throat tissues through osmosis, which can help relieve the infection. Gargling salt water can also break up the thick mucus lining our throats when we're sick, which can contain irritants like bacteria or fungi, writes Philip T. Hagen, MD, in the Mayo Clinic Book of Home Remedies. And this strategy can also be a proactive prevention method: A 2005 study by the Mayo Clinic found that people who gargled salt water saw a 40 percent decrease in upper respiratory tract infections, and fewer symptoms when they did contract one.
Don't let your throat dry out
Keeping your throat moist is also a good idea: You don't want dry tissues rubbing together every time you swallow (a common reason you might wake up with a sore throat in winter).
Cough drops can help, just make sure to avoid those with menthol, which actually irritates the throat and can make symptoms worse. "Menthol temporarily [numbs] the nerves in the throat and gives a cooling sensation to an otherwise sore throat," Dr. Husain has told Well+Good. That numbing strategy can backfire, she says: "Chronically exposing it to menthol can create a hypersensitive state."
Also, don’t chew your cough drops, since this may be irritating because you'll be swallowing the rough, hard edges.
Plug in your humidifier
Using a humidifier—especially at night—can keep your throat from drying out, and making it hurt more. Steamy showers can also help. You may even try adding eucalyptus or rosemary to your steam inhalation to help soothe your throat so you can wake up feeling a bit more refreshed.
- “Herbal tea helps reduce the pain of acute pharyngitis.” BMJ : British Medical Journal vol. 327,7417 (2003): 0.
- Satomura, Kazunari et al. “Prevention of upper respiratory tract infections by gargling: a randomized trial.” American journal of preventive medicine vol. 29,4 (2005): 302-7. doi:10.1016/j.amepre.2005.06.013
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