Easing a Sore Throat
Health Matters, January 2024

Easing a Sore Throat

By Kathy Abascal

As winter weather settles in, more and more people are complaining of being tired and having sore throats. This could be COVID, of course, but in many cases, it is simply the start of a winter cold. Many respiratory infections begin with symptoms of fatigue and a slight scratchy dryness in the throat that soon evolves to a seriously sore throat, followed by the runny nose and other symptoms. There are good herbs to help your body stop this chain of events.

If I wake up a bit cranky or have a slightly scratchy sore throat, I always turn to echinacea tincture to prod my immune system into action. This herb works best if you take small, frequent doses, and taste the herb rather than swallowing it in a capsule. The lymph tissue in the back of your throat keeps track of what is coming into the body and sounds an early alert to the rest of the system when something seems amiss. The system seems to respond more quickly when the throat tissues are directly exposed to the compounds in echinacea.

My favorite sore throat herb is red root (Ceanothus spp.) The Eastern version of this plant is called New Jersey tea, and its leaves were substituted for true tea in the aftermath of the Boston Tea Party. There are many species of red root, all are evergreen, and many have lovely lilac-colored flowers with a pleasant, mild fragrance. They come in many shapes and sizes and are easy to grow. The root is very red (hence its common name) and it is very astringent. 

Medicinally, red root is used to tone the lymphatic system and improve the flow of lymph. Red root can be helpful in ailments where the lymph does not flow properly, causing issues ranging from hemorrhoids and varicose veins to fluid-filled, tender breasts. It was a favorite of Eclectic physicians for the swellings of mumps and tonsillitis, and it is a stellar remedy for swollen and sore throats. Red root should be taken frequently, and should be gargled a bit before swallowing so it comes in good contact with the throat tissue.

I often combine echinacea and red root with yerba mansa (Anemopsis californica) tinctures in a sore throat remedy. Like red root, yerba mansa helps draw out fluid from boggy throats and adds to the antimicrobial action of echinacea. Gargled and swallowed about every hour or so, this mixture of herbs can do wonders to soothe the throat and prevent a cold virus from settling in.

But not all sore throats signal the onset of a cold. Some sore throats instead follow in the wake of respiratory viruses, and are caused by secondary bacterial infections. Our mouths and throats are usually protected by a layer of gooey mucus that forms a barrier, essentially trapping bacteria in muck. Viral infections, however, tend to damage the mucus-secreting cells, and while those cells are in recovery, it becomes easier for bacteria to move into our bodies. 

As a secondary defense, our bodies use hyaluronic acid to “glue” cells together in tissue layers. This helps to prevent bacteria from moving deeper into the body. However, some bacteria produce an enzyme (hyaluronidase) that dissolves the “glue” so they can squeeze between cells and make their way in. Echinacea has an anti-hyaluronidase action that counters the bacteria’s ability to dissolve the tissue barrier. This is one of the ways that echinacea works in the body and one of the reasons why it can help prevent secondary throat infections after a cold or other respiratory virus.

Another simple way to prevent secondary infections (such as strep throat) is to sip on a cold infusion of marshmallow root when one’s throat feels scratchy. Marshmallow root contains large sugar molecules that turn gooey and gelatinous when warmed. A cold infusion is a way of extracting these molecules without heat, so the beverage is not thick and icky to drink. Once in the warm body, the sugars thicken and coat the membranes damaged by the virus and create a sort of false mucus barrier that helps prevent bacteria from invading. Marshmallow root is a very safe, inexpensive herb. 

Well-chosen herbs can help to ward off all kinds of microbial attacks. With a few herbs and a little rest, you can quickly stop sore throats from becoming more difficult ailments. And never forget the importance of rest in helping your immune system. 

January 8, 2024

About Author

kathy I was born in Chicago, but mostly grew up in Sweden. After completing high school, I moved back to the US to attend college and graduated with a degree in neurobiology with a minor in biochemistry and French from the University of California at Berkeley. Immediately after graduating, I spent a year doing quality control testing at Chevron's pesticide factory in Richmond and then transitioned to working on a number of medical research studies. I helped conduct physician peer reviews at a San Francisco hospital and, when I eventually began looking for more challenging work, the doctors I worked with recommended that I apply to medical school. In retrospect, I should have followed their advice, but I instead decided to get a juris doctor degree from Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco. I worked as a research attorney at the California Court of Appeal for a number of years before going into private practice specializing in complex consumer litigation. As time passed, the California courts became more conservative and less receptive to consumer litigation and I found myself once again looking for a new direction. Now, I teach online classes on how to quiet inflammation. I am a professional herbalist and have written several books. You can learn more about my work and classes at TQIDiet.com