Going for the Throat
Bolstering your immune system can help forestall scratchiness and soreness.
It begins with a tickle. Then come the dry scraping and scratching, and a swollen feeling with searing pain, like swallowing fire. It hurts to breathe, and forget about talking. You’ve got yourself one doozy of a sore throat.
The medical term is pharyngitis, or inflammation of the pharynx. “The soreness is part of your body’s response to too many germs, as inflammation increases circulation to the throat to try to fight them. The pain lets you know where to put your attention,” says Marnie Loomis, ND, continuing education director for the National College of Natural Medicine in Portland, Oregon (www.ncnm.edu).
“Sore throats are common, and fortunately usually easy to treat,” says Paul S. Auerbach, MD of Stanford University Medical Center in California (http://stanfordhospital.org). “But it’s important to recognize complications, so you can seek appropriate medical care when necessary.”
Causes and Concerns
Many sore throats are triggered by factors such as allergies, high altitude, dry air or irritants. Sometimes soreness is caused by tonsilloliths, soft white stones consisting of mucus and other debris that can form in the pockets around the tonsils. A tendency to develop recurrent throat pain may even have psychosomatic origins. “If you often keep yourself from saying something you want to say, your shoulders, neck and throat can tense up,” explains Loomis. “This decreases circulation, making you vulnerable to the germs that could cause a sore throat.”
Sore throat commonly signals an upper respiratory infection, particularly when accompanied by coughing, sneezing, body aches, fever and runny nose. Symptoms that should prompt an immediate trip to your healthcare provider include white patches or pus, problems in swallowing or talking, high fever, swollen and red tonsils, vomiting and severe, constant pain. These can be signs of strep throat, a bacterial infection that is not to be ignored because it can lead to more serious illnesses such as rheumatic fever (which can damage the heart).
The practitioner may take a throat culture, or rapid strep test, by rubbing a sterile swab across the back of your throat and tonsils to gather a sampling of cells. Within a few hours you should know whether you’ve got strep or not. If so, both Loomis and Auerbach agree that antibiotic treatment is often the smartest way to go (be sure to take the full course of medication).
Most illness-related sore throats are caused by viruses, microbes that are responsible for colds and flu. You can breathe in viruses from someone’s sneeze or cough, or pick them up through touch by turning a doorknob or borrowing a pen and then scratching your nose or eating something with your fingers.
Reducing viral exposure is only half the battle. In fact, “we have bacteria and viruses upon us all the time,” says Auerbach. “But when their ability to replicate and invade our tissues is more powerful than our immune system’s defenses, that’s when illnesses and infections occur.”
Fatigue, poor diet, excessive stress and lack of exercise contribute to a weakened immune system, making it easy for those germs to bombard your throat. That makes building your immunity an important part of avoiding throat pain.
To support and strengthen your immune system, Loomis recommends plenty of rest and fluids, and a healthful diet of fresh fruits and vegetables (the more colorful the better), grains and legumes. Avoid sweets and alcohol, since “germs feed on sugar, making it harder for you to fight them off,” she says.
To cut down on microbial exposure, Loomis recommends washing your hands often with soap and warm water. (Rub-on antimicrobial agents will do in a pinch if hand-washing facilities are not available.) Wipe down doorknobs, computer keyboards and phone receivers to remove germs, and don’t share or reuse drinking glasses or eating utensils. When you sneeze or cough, cover it with the crook of your elbow, not your hands.
Supplemental help is also available. Vitamins A and C, along with the mineral zinc and the herbs echinacea and goldenseal, have a long history of usage in helping to fend off colds and flu. Olive leaf extract has demonstrated an ability to fight not only viruses but a number of bacteria as well. The herb andrographis and a type of fiber called arabinogalactan (ARA) have been found to boost the activity of various immune-system components, including the natural killer (NK) cells that go after microbes. Probiotics not only support a healthy immune response but can protect your digestive tract should you need to take antibiotics (for more information, see Supplement Savvy).
If a sore throat develops despite your best efforts, ease it with fluids such as water, broth and tea. Relieve pain by gargling with a half-teaspoon of salt dissolved in one cup of warm water. “The salt dehydrates the bacterial or viral agents to the point where they can’t live,” says Loomis. She also recommends alternating hot and cold compresses to the neck to increase circulation. Demulcent herbs, which contain components that soothe the mucous membrane with their slippery feel, also provide relief. Licorice root, marshmallow root and slippery elm can all be brewed into soothing teas.
“Homeopathy is fantastic for sore throats,” adds Loomis. “Not only does it take into account each individual’s situation and needs, but it also is gentle. If it’s going to work, it will work. If not, you know to try something else.” Argentum metallicum, anas barbariae hepatis et cordis extractum and baptisia tinctoria are among the homeopathic remedies that are used to ease cold and flu symptoms, including sore throat.
The best way to avoid an infection-related sore throat is to strengthen your immune system. Here are some ways to bolster your defenses: