Looking for a safe, natural approach to sore throats? The family herbalist has a plethora of natural sore throat remedies at her disposal. In this in-depth training guide we explore the broader context of herbal approaches, and proven remedies used by contemporary herbalists.
A sore throat is pain, scratchiness or irritation of the throat that often worsens when you swallow. The most common cause of a sore throat (pharyngitis) is a viral infection, such as a cold or the flu. A sore throat caused by a virus resolves on its own. 
Strep throat (streptococcal infection), a less common type of sore throat caused by bacteria, requires treatment with antibiotics to prevent complications. Other less common causes of sore throat might require more complex treatment. 
What Causes a Sore Throat?
Your Doctor’s View
A sore throat results from infection. The most common infection is tonsillopharyngitis an infection of the tonsils (patches of lymphoid tissue at the back of the throat) and the throat (pharynx). Doctors may use the term tonsillitis when the tonsils are particularly inflamed or the term pharyngitis when the tonsils are not particularly inflamed or when people who have no tonsils have a sore throat. 
Tonsillopharyngitis is usually caused by a virus, typically one of the same viruses that causes the common cold. Most common colds begin with a mild sore throat. About 10% of sore throats in adults (and slightly more in children) are caused by a type of Streptococcus bacteria (streptococci). Such streptococcal infections are often termed strep throat. Strep throat is unusual in children younger than 2 years.
A sore throat caused by a viral infection usually lasts five to seven days and doesn’t require medical treatment. However, to ease pain and fever, many people turn to acetaminophen (Tylenol, others) or other mild pain relievers. Use acetaminophen for the shortest time possible and follow label directions to avoid side effects. If your sore throat is caused by a bacterial infection, your doctor will prescribe antibiotics. 
The Family Herbalist’s View
Sore throats may be caused by problems originating in the lungs, the nose, the sinuses, the mouth, the stomach, and also by systemically based problems. They may take the form of tonsillitis, pharyngitis or laryngitis.
In the wider context of treatment a sore throat is an indication of an impaired immune system. This results when the body is attempting to eliminate toxins, especially from the lymph system and the intestinal tract. The lymphatic system will be the focus of tonic support.
The family herbalist will also look at improving elimination and supporting the immune system to prevent future infections. Especially when there is a pattern of recurring infection. This includes improvement of bowel function, proper dietary measures, and rest.
Herbal Therapeutic Actions Indicated
Lymphatics are of primary importance, especially in tonsillitis (which is an infection of lymph tissue) or when the lymp glands are swollen.
Demulcents will soothe the mucous lining and ease discomfort.
Bitters have a toning and stimulating effect on the mucous lining and may be helpful in many cases.
Anti-inflammatories will reduce the immediate cause of distress.
Anti-microbials help the immune system combat the infection, whatever the causal pathogen may be, and help prevent the development of secondary infection. However, they are not indicated if inflammation is due to some other cause.
Astringents are often effective as a local gargle, especially if the problem was precipitated by overuse of the vocal cords.
Anticatarrhals are indicated if there is associated sinus congestion or middle ear involvement.
Expectorants are indicated if secondary problems develop in the lower respiratory system.
Therapeutic Considerations for Sore Throats
The family herbalist’s primary therapeutic goal is to enhance the immune system. If a person’s immune system is functioning well, the illness will be short-lived. Every effort should be made to strengthen the immune system.
While poor immune function is clearly a factor in people suffering from chronic sore throat, other factors should also be considered. For example, some people experience repeated challenges to their pharynx from microbes residing in their toothbrush.  Changing to a new toothbrush or washing the toothbrush in the dishwasher every 17 to 31 days has been shown to help many people who are prone to having a sore throat. 
Another significant cause of chronic sore throat is food allergy. Typical upper-respiratory-tract symptoms of chronic delayed food allergy include chronic sore throat, runny nose, sinusitis, tonsillitis, and laryngitis. 
If antibiotics are used or have been used, it is important to support and restore the intestinal flora (micro-biome). In the short term this can be done with a probiotic supplement containing Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacterium bifidus. Probiotic supplementation helps prevent and treat antibiotic induced diarrhea, candida overgrowth and urinary tract infections. In the wider context of treatment the micro-biome should be supported with dietary measures.
Secondary therapeutic goals will be dictated by the severity of the symptoms – pain, inflammation and swollen glands.
The time-honored herbalist practices of drinking plenty of fluids, restricting food intake, and getting plenty of rest, are very important. So is eliminating concentrated sugars (sugar, honey, fruit juice, dried fruit, etc.) and suspected food allergens from the diet.
Because fever is a natural defense mechanism it should be supported. Drugs or herbs to lower the fewer should not be used unless the body temperature approached 40 degrees C (104 degrees F), at which point the body’s ability to control its temperature becomes impaired. 
Sore Throat Remedies – Simples
Side note: For an explanation of simples and formulae revisit Module 3, Unit 3. of Basic Herbal Medicine Making.
The herbal traditions of the world abound with herbs effective for sore throats.
In Europe gargling with astringent herbs is the traditional approach. (Side note: Astringents should not be drunk, as they will probably also promote constipation – an unnecessary and unfortunate complication when a secondary therapeutic goal is improving elimination as is the case in treating sore throats.)
Effective gargles for infections of the pharynx or tonsils may include sage (Salvia officinalis), balm of Gilead (Populus gileadensis), thyme (Thymus vulgaris), blackberry leaves (Rubus fruticosus), bistort (Polygonum bistorta), black elderberry flower (Sambucus nigra), and cranesbill (Geranium maculatum).
Soothing mucilaginous remedies like licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra), and marshmallow root or leaf (Althaea officinalis) may help with dry and irritable surfaces.
Sore Throat Remedies – Formulae
A Formula for Laryngitis
Echinacea spp. – 2 parts
Porter’s lovage (Ligusticum porteri) – 2 parts
Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) – 2 parts
Dosage: up to 1 ml of tincture every hour.
A Gargle for Laryngitis and Tonsillitis
Red sage (Salvia officinalis var. rubia) – 1 part (or garden sage, Salvia officinalis)
Feverfew (Matricaria recutita) – 1 part
Make a strong infusion with dried herbs. Gargle often until symptoms subside.
A Formula for Tonsillitis
Cleavers (Galium aparine) – 2 parts
Echinacea spp. – 2 parts
Wild indigo (Baptisia tinctoria) – 1 part
Marigold (Calendula officinalis) – 1 part
Dosage: up to 5ml of ticnture three times a day. Or make as strong infusion with herbs and take a cup every two hours.
A General Formula for Sore Throats
Echinacea spp. – 2 parts
Poke root (Phytolacca americana) – 2 parts
Red sage (Salvia officinalis var. rubia) – 2 parts
Balm of Gilead (Populus gileadensis) – 1 part
Make a strong infusion with dried herbs. Take a cup every two hours which may be sweetened with Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra).
Sore Throat Remedies – Essential Oils
Aromatherapy provides effective treatment for sore throats. See Essential Oils for Sore Throats – A Guide for Family Herbalists for a detailed discussion of this topic.
- Whole grains, especially brown rice, barley, and oats. Make grain a little wetter and softer than usual for easier digestion.
- Green, yellow, and orange vegetable. Steam and boil.
- Kombu seaweed. Make a soup stock from it or cut it up and cook with vegetables.
- Cucumbers, raw and whole, or cucumber juice.
- Root vegetables such as carrots, turnips, rutabagas, and parsnips.
- Miso soup
- Chicken soup. A well know immune boosting remedy. See our Spicy Chicken Noodle Soup – omit the noodles and add more garlic.
- Lemon. Dilute the juice with water. Cleanses the liver.
Eat less or avoid
- Cold drinks and soft drinks
- Dairy products
- Cigarettes. Including secondary smoking.
- Vitamin C: 500 mg every two hours
- Vitamin A: 400 – 500 IU daily
- Vitamin B Complex
- Zinc: take lozenges that supply 15 – 25 mg of zinc (gluconate form without citrate mannitol or sorbitol). Dissolve in the mouth every two waking hours after an initial double dose. Continue for up to 3 days. 
Popular Home Remedies
- Gargle with warm salt water twice per day. 1 tablespoon salt in a glass of water. Add a tablespoon or two apple cider vinegar.
- Gargle with hot water, lemon juice and honey.
- Apply a cold compress. Soak a linen cloth in cold water, wring it out, and apply it around the neck, smoothing it out as much as possible. Wrap a woolen scarf around your neck on top of the compress. After 20 – 30 minutes the compress will be partially dried out and warm and should be removed and replaced.
- Tabasco gargle. Add Tabasco sauce (or cayenne pepper) to a cup of hot water for sore throat relief.
- Clove gargle. Make a strong infusion with ground cloves, and gargle for pain relief.
Sore Throat Cures From Days Gone By
My sore throats, you know, are always worse than anybody’s. – Jane Austen (1775-1817) Persuasion
Many of the following may certainly qualify as old grandmother’s cures, a commendation which Dr Chase warned us not to belittle. If nothing else, they may provide some comic relief.
A GOOD OLD GRANDMOTHER’S GARGLE: Steep one medium sized red pepper in half a pint of water, strain and add 1/4 pint good vinegar, and a heaping teaspoon each, of salt, and pulverized alum, and gargle with it as often is needed. Dr. Chase’s Recipes. 1892 Edition
TAKE A SOCK you have worn into a boot and worked in for almost a week so that it has a bad odour. Tie it around your neck. Appalachian Folk Remedy
QUINSY OR SORE THROAT: Get three toads and tie them by the legs with a string. Let them stay in the sun until they decay away; wear the string around the neck, It is a simple and certain cure. A Number of Receipts For Curing Man and Beast, 1855
RECIPE FOR A PUTRID SORE THROAT: Mix one gill of strong apple cider, one tablespoon of common salt, one tablespoon of drained honey and half a pod of red pepper together and boil them to a proper consistency, then pour into half a pint of strong sage tea, take a teaspoonful occasionally and it will be found an infallible cure. Ladies Indispensable Assistant, New York, 1851
CUT SLICES OF SALT PORK or fat bacon: simmer a few moments in hot vinegar, and apply to the throat as hot as possible. When this is taken off, as the throat is relieved, put around a bandage of soft flannel. A gargle of equal parts of borax and alum, dissolved in water, is also excellent. To be used frequently. The Canadian Home Cook Book, 1877
 Mayo Clinic Sore Throat
 M. Murray N.D. and J Pizzorno N.D. Encyclopaedia Of Natural Medicine, Revised 2nd Edition, 1988
 D.W. Asher, “Chronic Sore Throat: The Toothbrush Connection,” Cortland Forum 57 (1990): 17 – 28
 W.P. King, “Food Hypersensitivity in Otolaryngology: Manifestations, Diagnosis and Treatment,” Otolaryngol Clin North Am 25 (1992): 163 – 79
Share Your Personal Experience
What do you use for sore throats? Please share your experience in a Reply below.
The information provided is for educational purposes only. Used as a reference, not as a means of diagnosis and/or treatment, it can act as a guide, but only with the cooperation and advise of trained professionals. It is not within the scope of any collection of information to perform the medical duties of the health care profession.
Always consult with your physician or other qualified healthcare provider before embarking on a new wellness program. If you are pregnant or lactating, taking medications, have a health condition or are planning a medical procedure, you should consult your doctor or other healthcare provider.