Gargling Salt Water Is a Seriously Underrated Hack for Fighting Inflammation

Photo: Getty Images/ Michael Poehlman
You wake up in the morning with a telltale tickle in your throat. Ruh roh. Is it the first symptom of a cold, the flu, or—gulp—strep throat? Before you rush to the doctor's office or reach for strong pharmaceutical medicines, consider trying a more immediate cure for the pain and irritation of a sore throat—gargling salt water.

Salt water gargles are an easy and natural home remedy for a host of common ailments that may be the root cause of your pain. It could possibly soothe the inflammation in your throat in a matter of hours. What have you got to lose?

Keep reading to learn more about gargling salt water

Gargling salt water benefits
Photo: Getty Images/ Michelle Arnold

What happens when you gargle salt water?

Salt water gargles may seem like an old wives' tale (raise your hand if you first heard about it from Grandma), but there's science to back up its effectiveness. The addition of salt to a glass of warm water used as a gargle creates an osmosis effect where the concentration of salt draws fluids from your mouth and throat tissues to relieve a painful infection. It also breaks up thick mucus, which can remove irritants like allergens, bacteria and fungi from the throat, according to Philip T. Hagen, MD, editor in chief of the Mayo Clinic Book of Home Remedies.

Benefits of gargling salt water

Soothe inflammation and prevent infection from returning

For the above reason, salt water gargles can help alleviate throat inflammation caused by seasonal allergies, colds, and sinus infections. But the simple mixture can also prevent an infection from striking twice. The osmosis effect that helps your throat is also effective at drawing out harmful pathogens on your gum tissues and creating a salt barrier that helps prevent their return. (These effects were recently proven in a clinical study that focused on the effects of salt water.)

Pain caused by canker sores and bleeding gums can also be lessened by a periodic salt water gargle, which is why the trusted parenting site Doctor Sears names it as a go-to remedy.

Cut down on harmful bacteria in the mouth

Salt water neutralizes acids caused by invading bacteria. This, in turn, helps keep a balanced pH level in your mouth (the bacteria would much prefer a steamy, acidic home), which can help prevent gingivitis.

Salt water can also guard against the spread of fungal infections such as the yeast Candidiasis, which attacks the mouth and throat. (And no one wants that.)

Reduce respiratory infections

A 2005 study by the Mayo Clinic used a test group of 400 people split into two groups. One group was asked to gargle salt water three times a day. The other group was not. After a test run of 60 days during flu season, the group of people who used salt water gargle saw a 40 percent decrease in upper respiratory tract infections compare to the other group. For those who did get sick, their bronchial symptoms were greatly alleviated by the salt water gargle.

A clinical study in Japan also recently showed that using a salt water gargle can reduce the chance of upper respiratory infection by as much as 40 percent.

Clear your nasal passageways

If you're suffering from the flu or a cold with head and chest congestion, a salt water gargle can thin the sore-throat-causing mucus build-up in your respiratory tract and nasal cavity.

Side effects of a salt water gargle

While a pinch of salt may be just what the doctor ordered, be careful not to turn your glass into the Dead Sea: Too much salt can dehydrate the mouth and throat tissues. A quarter to a half teaspoon per cup of water will do the trick.

How to prepare a salt water gargle

According to the Mayo Clinic, to make a salt water gargle, simply stir a quarter to a half teaspoon of table salt or sea salt into a cup of warm or hot water until it is completely dissolved. You want the water to be warm enough to dissolve the salt, but not so hot that it will burn your mouth. (Because then you'll really need a doctor.)

It’s best to use pure water because tap water often includes chlorine, which could irritate your throat and weaken your immune system. So, even though it may seem extra-fancy, avoid tap water unless your home has its own well.

If you want to improve the taste, you could add honey, lemon, peppermint, or garlic.

How to gargle salt water

Take a large sip of the salt water, tilt your head back, and gargle for 30 seconds, then swish the water around your teeth and gums before spitting it out.

One sip won't do it: Repeat this method until your cup of salt water is finished. And you can repeat the whole shebang every four hours until your sore throat subsides.

If your throat is still crying out for help after three days, it's time to see your doctor. And if you have a fever or show symptoms of white mucus spots on your throat or tonsils, you may have an infection requiring antibiotics.

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