The gargling of salt water is an old method which was commonly used to treat sore throats. A few tablespoons of salt are mixed into a glass of water, the solution is stirred, then a mouthful is gargled for 30 or so seconds.
The treatment can often be found in home remedy books, it is recommended in online web forums, and most commonly prescribed by dear old mom to help soothe your infected throat. But does it really work, or is it just an old wives tale? Is there any actual science behind the practice? Let’s find out.
Does Gargling Salt Water Actually Help With Sore Throats?
Bacteria – like the kind that can cause a sore throat – are single-celled organisms which can multiply rapidly if left unchecked. When their reproduction spins out of control, and the body isn’t fighting them off, they cause some pretty nasty symptoms in humans. While some bacteria are actually beneficial to the human body – like the kind in our digestive system – bad bacteria are often directly responsible for many human illnesses. One of the most common of those illnesses is sore throats.
When you gargle with concentrated salt water, osmosis occurs. Osmosis is what happens when solvents, separated by a semi-permeable membrane, move from lower concentrations to higher concentrations. The two sides want to move towards an equilibrium. By introducing this into your throat, you’re helping to create an environment that is less hospitable for bacteria.
The high concentration of salt also help to draw liquid from the throat. Specifically, drawing out the edema (excess fluid). Edemas naturally occur during an infection, and by drawing it out of the tissue, you are reducing the swelling. This in turn makes your throat feel better. The salt may also kill off some of the bacteria, but many strains are now resistant to the mild levels of salt. It is a misconception to think that the salt water will directly kill off the bacteria. Gargling with salt water simply creates a dehydrated environment that the bacteria find less hospitable and potentially dangerous.
Because salt is more soluble in warmer water, it is recommended for sore throats that gargling with warm salt water as frequently as you can – or up to 8 times a day, to help reduce swelling and soreness.
Unfortunately, many sore throat infections are also often lodged down in tonsillar crypts. This means that they would not be as exposed to the oral environment so gargling with salt water would be of little help.