A Taste of Sore Throat Relief

Friday, October 2nd, 2015 at 8:21 am

Our family has had colds this week, which means mama has been pushing lots of fluids and encouraging lots of rest. I hate colds like these, ones where you’re exhausted but can’t sleep thanks to the postnasal drip and where your throat feels like it’s on fire from the aforementioned drip.

With colds like these, you have to pull out the big guns for sore throat relief. That is, if by “big guns” you mean standard-variety home remedies.

As I was contemplating my options for sore throat relief, I realized that the spectrum of relief includes all five of the basic tastes.

Say what?

While we typically refer to the “taste” of something as being whatever gives it its characteristic flavor, this is an incorrect understanding of taste. Taste is one of our senses, experienced through the “taste buds” located on our tongues. There are just five basic “tastes”: Bitter, Salty, Sour, Sweet, and Umami.

And it just so happens that you can try a sore throat remedy in every taste.

Bitter: Baking Soda Gargle

The Technique:
Add 1/2 tsp baking soda to 1 cup warm water. Gargle in throat and then spit out.

Why does it taste bitter?
Baking soda (chemical name: sodium bicarbonate) is basic (with a pH above 7) and basic compounds taste bitter.

The Claim:
Bicarbonate kills bacteria and other bad bugs that colonize your throat.

Evidence:
Tenuous. This is a commonly recommended home remedy – and if it provides you relief, great. It’s cheap and not likely to be dangerous. On the other hand, it’s unlikely that it’s actually killing anything bad. Any relief is probably from having warm water on your throat. Sorry.

Salty: Salt Water Gargle

The Technique:
Add 1/2 tsp salt to 1 cup warm water. Gargle in throat and then spit out. This technique is often combined with the above (1/2 tsp salt, 1/2 tsp baking soda to 1 cup water).

Why does it taste salty?
‘Cause it’s salt (chemical name: sodium chloride) and salt tastes salty :-)

The Claim:
Salt kills the bacteria and other bad bugs that colonize your throat.

Evidence:
Also tenuous. See the evidence for the “bitter” solution.

Sour: Lemon or Orange Juice

The Technique:
Mix a little lemon juice (with or without honey) into warm water and drink. Or just have some orange juice.

Why does it taste sour?
Citrus fruits contain citric acid – and acids give foods a characteristicly sour taste.

The Claim:
Vitamin C in lemon or orange juice stops cold viruses in their tracks, either by killing the virus or by boosting your immune system so it can kill the virus.

Evidence:
While many super-smart people have posited the above claim, scientific study has failed to support this claim. The relief you experience when you drink lemon water or orange juice is more likely thanks to the soothing effect of the water itself (numbing when cold, relaxing when warm). The water also helps by loosening secretions so you don’t get stuffed up (and since stuffiness promotes things like sinus infections and uncomfortable headaches, the water can help you avoid some of those complications.)

Sweet: Honey

The Technique:
Eat honey from a spoon, or add it to your warm lemon water or tea.

Why does it taste sweet?
Honey is primarily made up of the simple sugars glucose and fructose (the same two sugars that are linked together to form table sugar). Both sugars taste sweet – fructose is a little sweeter than table sugar, glucose is a little less sweet than table sugar.

The Claim:
Honey keeps you from coughing, which keeps the sore throat from getting worse. Also, if your sore throat is caused by allergies, locally grown honey will contain pollen proteins that will desensitize you to common allergens.

Evidence:
The anti-cough properties of honey are borne out by moderately good quality research studies. So if your sore throat is because you’ve been coughing a lot, honey will help it out. If you put your honey in water, especially warm water such as if you were making a warm lemon water or tea concoction, you’ll get even more benefit because the water will loosen any secretions so they can flow into your digestive system instead of hanging out in your throat to get coughed up. The allergy thing? I wish it were true, but there isn’t any clinical evidence to suggest that it is – and its theory is also tenuous since most of the things people are allergic to are wind-pollinated rather than bee-pollinated, so the honey is unlikely to contain the offending allergens.

Umami: Chicken Noodle Soup

The Technique:
Make chicken noodle soup (or have grandma make it for you :-P) Eat and enjoy.

Why does it taste umami – or, hey wait, what on earth is umami?
I’m so glad you asked! Umami is a meaty or brothy taste that we experience when we eat meat or broth (I know, right?) It is caused by the amino acid glutamate, which is found in most meats, mushrooms, and in that ubiquitous Chinese food additive monosodium glutamate. Chicken – and chicken broth – contains glutamate and therefore tastes umami

The Claim:
Chicken noodle soup fixes a sore throat because Grandma said so.

Evidence:
The majority of the benefit of chicken noodle soup is probably psychosomatic – most of us include chicken noodle soup in the “comfort food” category. But even if it isn’t a comfort food for you, it’s a warm water-filled food – which means it loosens up those secretions and it soothes your throat on its way down.


My preferred sore-throat treatment is warm water with lemon and honey, not so much because it confers medical benefits (although the anti-cough properties of the honey are sometimes welcome), but because it tastes great and it makes sure I’m getting that much needed water while I’m battling a cold. (Tirzah Mae gets breastmilk – the ultimate wonder-drug. Honey could contain botulism spores that a baby’s immature immune system can’t shed, resulting in life-threatening respiratory illness, so never give honey to a baby under age 1.)

Do you have a favorite sore throat remedy?


Reader Comments (2):

  1. Barbara H. says:

    I had never heard the word umami before. With the heart rhythm problem I have, I’ve been advised not to take decongestants, so I usually just try to rest more, drink plenty of fluids, and if I have to, use cough drops. I like Halls if I’m plugged up, Ricola if it is more of a sore throat. Hope you all are feeling better soon.

  2. YES. WE HAVE THE SAME COLDS!

    We use GSE with some regularity.

    Then I found this on the trusty internet which has worked beautifully!

    This home remedy helps expel phlegm as sesame seeds act as a natural expectorant.

    Boil one tablespoon of sesame seeds in a cup of water.
    Mix in one tablespoon of linseed (flaxseeds) and continue boiling.
    Strain the mixture and then add one teaspoon of honey and a pinch of salt.
    Drink this mixture once daily.

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