The debate is rife as sore throats make the rounds through the Nccmed editorial office: what is the best drink to soothe the pain? Most importantly, if this is food, herbs, or lemon and honey, what is the scientific basis of our preference home remedy?
We pointed out a few weeks ago that both hot and cold drinks or ice pops will help ease the discomfort of a sore throat with which most of us will be familiar during the annual cold and flu season.
Now, the discussion has taken another turn: where does alcohol, spices like cinnamon and ginger work in the mix?
To find out, I first conducted a scientific survey among the office workers to highlight our drink-of-choice, followed by a deep dive into the scientific evidence that underpins our convictions.
Lemon and honey – our ‘go-to’ remedy
Among the Nccmed editorial staff, the most popular choice was a home-made hot drink with fresh lemon juice and honey, with a whopping 62 per cent citing it as one of their ‘go – to’ drinks, while hot lemon alone finished second with 31 per cent.
Our belief in lemon and honey stems from knowledge passed from generation to generation, and from media reports.
“Hot water with lemon and honey – I’m sure I’ve read it somewhere,” and “This is mainly based on the advice of family and friends, but supported by studies and stuff based on lemon vitamin C and the antibacterial / antimicrobial elements of honey,” are just two of the examples my colleagues listed.
Lemon is popular in beverages, due to its high vitamin C levels. Research in the use of vitamin C to treat common cold goes all the way back to the 1940s, but the outcomes of the various clinical trials that have since been performed differ.
Although earlier research suggested that taking vitamin C decreased the amount of time a cold would stay around, the current opinion is that it is ineffective for the general population.
Nonetheless, when a cold is approaching, there are several classes of individuals that may benefit from vitamin C. Those include those who participate in heavy physical activity, those who are exposed to cold conditions and those with levels of vitamin C below the required amount.
But there is no evidence it soothes a sore throat.
Honey, viruses, and pain
Honey is known for its patented antimicrobials. One research found that Manuka honey is effective in reducing how easily it reproduces the influenza virus — the source of the flu.
Honey has mainly studied in the sense of tonsillectomy when it comes to pain and research has shown that honey is successful. Bingo.
Many studies have investigated honey’s efficacy in reducing cough, linked with the common cold and flu. Here, multiple clinical trials showed a slight increase in the consistency of nighttime cough and sleep in children over 1 year of age.
So, honey possibly helps with the pain and the lemon can or may not help improve our symptoms recovery from it.
Alcoholic drinks ‘joint second’ favorite
While lemon and honey were the obvious winners in our race to cure a sore throat, alcoholic drinks took second place together, with 31 percent of nccmed editorial people claiming hot or cold alcoholic beverages sooth their sore throat.
The explanations for this ranged from “alcohol to ‘disinfect’ my throat,” to “alcohol is after all [an] anesthetic.”
While there is proof that alcohol can destroy the viruses that are responsible for the common cold and flu, that is generally only the case with alcoholic hand gels and sanitizers or with alcohol-containing lozenges.
Alcohol does have anesthetic effects, but the advantages we attribute to various alcoholic concoctions in soothing our sore throat are not scientifically proven. This is just speculation.
Alcohol is therefore a vasodilator. And if you’re feeling cold and achy due to a common cold or flu infection, an alcoholic beverage will add a rosy hue to your cheeks and at the same time make you feel warm and fuzzy.
Spices bring up the rear
In the workplace survey the final category has been spiced or mulled beverages.
23 percent of my colleagues cited Ginger as an important remedy for calming a sore throat. Ginger has also been shown to reduce pain.
Researchers used computer modeling in one study to find out if ginger can prevent influenza infection — especially the H1N1 strain that causes swine flu. The team found the active ingredient in ginger protects human cells from being infected by the virus.
Cinnamon, which was chosen by 8 per cent of the team, is the final throat-soother on our list.
“This is based on trying it out and reading about the cinnamon properties,” was one of the reasons this famous spice was chosen for.
According to one study, the growth of influenza A virus in vitro and in vivo has been inhibited by a component contained in the essential oil in cinnamon. Yet there are no specific studies that look at cinnamon and sore throat.
Of course, the Nccmed office is too small to give us an accurate snapshot of the general population. Yet some of the results of a major study released in 2016 are not far away from us.
99 per cent of people use some sort of home remedy when they encounter the trials and tribulations that come with the common cold, according to the study.
Similar to the findings of our office survey, honey was a strong favorite on the list which was sought relief by 42 per cent of participants.
While it is important to remember that the scientific basis for all the home remedies the Nccmed office staff prefer is fairly slim, it has been shown that hot drinks of any description have the best effect on sore throats.
As Prof. Ron Eccles — formerly the director of the Common Cold Center at the School of Biosciences at Cardiff University, UK — explained to me, hot drinks — especially hot, sweet drinks — help lubricate a sore throat and soothe the pain.