Gargling to Treat the Common Cold: Another Win for Mom

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It’s a lovely, clear fall day in southern Wisconsin, today. Seasonal temperatures, sunshine, and trees outside our windows here at work are turning shades of yellow, plum and red.

While the weather has been mild, even above average for September (today is October 1), cold season struck early here. In our work group, all suffered mild to strong symptoms: sore throat, congestion, fever, and time away from work, ‘sleeping it off’.

While there is no cure for the common cold, we all employ a therapy or two for easing the pain of symptoms. Growing up in small town Midwest, during the 1970s, the single remedy most often prescribed by our head nurse, Mom, was gargling with warm salt water.

This treatment was not only to alleviate cold symptoms, but dispensed in an effort to ward off kids that might think they needed a day in bed instead of in school. A complaint of “my throat hurts” was met with the command, “Have you gargled with warm salt water?!”

This of course was not the sympathetic ear a child hopes for. But in The New York Times this past week, a note that, as you already know:

Mom was right.

The New York Times article highlighted research published in 2005, in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, which proved that gargling with water goes beyond soothing symptoms; it can in fact help prevent upper respiratory tract infections.

For this study, 387 healthy volunteers between ages 18 and 65 participated for 60 days, during the winter cold and flu season. There were two gargling groups: one that gargled with water, the other a dilute povidone-iodine solution. Both groups were asked to gargle at least three times daily. The control group followed their usual routine.

Some of the study participants did contract upper respiratory tract infections, but the infection rate for those gargling with water was nearly 40% less than for the control group. The povidone-iodine group also saw a lower rate of infection, though not as impressive as that of the water gargling group.

Use of the salt water gargle is directly supported in a new book from the Mayo Clinic, to be released this month, “The Mayo Clinic Book of Home Remedies: What to Do For The Most Common Health Problems” (October 2010).

The Mayo Clinic online disease and symptom listing tells not only the symptoms of a common cold but also has a list of home remedies to treat it.

Their online resource provides this recipe for a salt water gargling solution:
“A saltwater gargle — 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon (1.2 milliliters to 2.5 milliliters) salt dissolved in an 8-ounce (237 milliliters) glass of warm water”—to temporarily relieve the symptoms of a sore throat.

Mom would add that the water should be “as warm as you can stand it”. You’ve heard the expression, “Tough love.”

The science behind the gargle remedy is pretty basic. Your throat is sore, and warmth of the solution gargle soothes the sore tissue. Using salt water may actually help draw some fluid out of the swollen, sore throat lining, easing inflammation and lessening pain.

Mayo Clinic goes on to note that those seeking a more palatable remedy (and who eschew spitting) can try warm water with lemon and honey. It’s ok to swallow this mixture.

While I’m neither nurse nor medical professional, may I add one new-agey twist to Mom’s favorite remedy? Bear with me, I’m a total whimp when a cold strikes. Parents and loved ones everywhere will benefit from one little phrase, delivered before the warm salt water gargle.

Try this first: “I’m sorry that your throat is so sore. “

Then, lay Mom’s remedy on them—“Have you gargled with warm salt water?”

Here is the reference:

Kitamura, S. et al. (2005) “Prevention of upper respiratory tract infections by gargling: a randomized trial.” Am. J. Prev. Med. 29: 302–7.
PMID: 16242593

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Kari Kenefick

Kari Kenefick

Kari has been a science writer/editor for Promega since 1996. Prior to that she enjoyed working in veterinary microbiology/immunology, and has an M.S. in Bacteriology, U of WI-Madison. Favorite topics include infectious disease, inflammation, aging, exercise, nutrition and personality traits. When not writing, she enjoys training her dogs in agility and obedience. About the practice of writing, as we say for cell-based assays, "add-mix-measure".


  1. Re: “warm water with lemon and honey” … my grandmother’s recipe also included a little medicinal bourbon. Not a hot toddy — it was served by the spoonful at room temperature.

  2. I use the same remedy, but since I only have one child at home, it’s a little easier to throw in the empathy. I guess it was tough love, and it would have been easier to stay home if she was more empathetic, but I find myself repeating those same phrases to my kids! “Drink LOTS and LOTS of water.” “Brush your teeth straight up and down.” ( I ma not even sure if that one is accurate!) And the one that used to really scare me: “Don’t swallow your gum. It sits in your stomach for seven years.”

  3. Absolutely correct! In my case, it was my dad’s advice and I dispense it, along with a little sympathy, to my kids. It works! And for those brave enough to try it, the ancient Indian strategy of a neti pot (warm salt water through the nasal passages) will ward off a number of ills. Sounds gross, feels gross, but it works! I make my kids do that too, when they’re really congested. As I knock wood here, I will say that I’ve been free of sinus infections and colds for nearly two years with these simple remedies. Don’t jinx me now! Thanks for affirming what Mom & Dad knew best.

    1. Sounds like a cold-free zone at your home, Francine. Thanks for sharing the sinus-amending tip as well! And yes, Dads deserve credit for good advice and nursing care as well.

  4. Love it! With all the medicines and remedies out there, sometimes you forget the basics. Thank you! I actually need to try this sooner than I want. Feeling something coming on. Will try this with my kids next time they start feeling under the weather!

    1. Thanks for your comment and hope the gargling has helped! Think it’s fascinating that gargling with plain old water works (as in the study cited), though also believe that (Mom’s recommendation) warm salt water has excellent soothing effects.

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