For many people, sucking on menthol lozenges is their first line of defense. And for those whose throat already feels raw and irritated, the instinct is to have one in your mouth almost constantly. It's exactly why it's so surprising that 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, says that using menthol lozenges for a sore throat is actually a terrible idea.
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- Inna Husain, MD, otolaryngologist affiliated with Community Hospital in Munster, Indiana
According to Dr. Husain, menthol actually irritates the throat, which can make symptoms worse. She says the reason why, despite this, it's a common ingredient in lozenges is because it acts as a mild topical anesthetic. "Menthol works to temporarily numb the nerves in the throat and gives a cooling sensation to an otherwise sore throat," she says. "One interesting thing I learned is that menthol was actually added to cigarettes to help numb the throat from the smoke irritation to help smokers especially new ones to tolerate the initial discomfort."
The problem, Dr. Husain, explains, is that the throat isn't meant to be numb. "Chronically exposing it to menthol can create a hypersensitive state," she says. "When the throat becomes more sensitive, it often feels more irritation to less stimuli, we call this the irritable larynx syndrome."
Okay, so using menthol lozenges for a sore throat isn't exactly a great idea. What ingredients should you look for in cough drops instead? Dr. Husain says to go for menthol-free lozenges that are honey-based. Honey is full of medicinal benefits including antimicrobial and antibacterial properties. You also may want to include some hot tea into your routine. Dr. Husain says warm tea has the dual benefit of being hydrating while inhaling the steam helps open up the throat. (Her recs are herbal teas or green tea which are less acidic—yes, there are also certain foods and drinks you'll want to avoid when you have a sore throat.)
If your sore throat persists, Dr. Husain recommends booking a doctor's appointment because it could be a sign of an underlying health issue. "I have unfortunately seen cases of self-medication with cough drops for throat irritation that was caused by cancer," she says.
With this intel, now you know exactly what to look for when perusing the drugstore for sore throat remedies. Bring on the winter activities: You're ready for it.
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- Albaridi, Najla A. “Antibacterial Potency of Honey.” International journal of microbiology vol. 2019 2464507. 2 Jun. 2019, doi:10.1155/2019/2464507
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