A Gaggle of Gargles

Gargling can freshen your breath, soothe a sore throat, help heartburn, and more!

Gargling isn’t just for freshening bad breath — though a quick swish or two with clove tea does that quite well. (To make the tea, pour a cup of just-boiled water over 1 or 2 teaspoons of bruised cloves, steep, strain, then let cool. Or add 2 tablespoons of bruised cloves to a pint of vodka, sherry, or light wine, let sit for a week, then strain and bottle. To use as a mouthwash, add 1 to 3 teaspoons to water.) Depending on what you gargle with, gargling is also a wonderfully simple and remarkably effective way to kill germs, soothe a scratchy throat — even stop heartburn.

Like most other home healing techniques, gargling has a long tradition. If you believe the practitioners of the ancient Indian healing system known as Ayurveda, gargling with vegetable oil (or at least swishing it around the mouth) improves sleep and boosts brainpower while whitening the teeth and rejuvenating the gums. Closer to home, mainstream doctors are increasingly convinced that germ-killing gargles may help prevent cardiovascular disease. It seems the same germs that cause bad gums can enter the bloodstream and trigger blood clots that cause heart attack and stroke.

Just how do gargles work? The glug-glug-glugging action helps rinse away mucus and cellular debris that irritate the mouth and throat. And the ingredient or ingredients you add to the water act directly on raw, inflamed tissues, helping soothe areas roughed up by dry or polluted air — or by an afternoon of enthusiastic cheering at the local soccer field.

No need to get fancy with your gargles. All you really need is hot water and a few simple ingredients that you may already have on hand.

Soothe a Sore Throat
For a sore throat, it’s hard to beat a lemon-juice-in-water gargle. The astringent juice helps shrink swollen throat tissue and creates a hostile (acidic) environment for viruses and bacteria. Just mix 1 teaspoon lemon juice in 1 cup water. Of course, there’s also plain old salt water. Use 1⁄4 teaspoon salt in 1 cup warm water. Add 1 tablespoon of Listerine for germ-killing power. But plenty of other sore throat gargles abound. One popular concoction calls for 1 teaspoon sage, 1⁄2 teaspoon alum, 1⁄4 cup brown sugar, 3⁄8 cup vinegar, and 1⁄8 cup water. And this down-home remedy makes short work of a sore throat: Mix 1 teaspoon each of powdered ginger and honey, 1⁄2 cup of hot water, and the juice of 1⁄2 squeezed lemon. Pour the water over the ginger, then add the lemon juice and honey. Honey coats the throat and also has mild antibacterial properties.

Gargling with the herbal germ-killer goldenseal (11⁄2 teaspoons goldenseal tincture in 8 ounces water) kills viruses and bacteria as it soothes inflamed throat tissue.

Another good bet: Wheatgrass juice. A quick rinse and spit with this chlorophyll-rich liquid is said to ease throat pain. Held in the mouth for five minutes or so, wheatgrass juice is said to help revitalize weakened gums and stop toothache pain.

Head Off Heartburn
For occasional heartburn, try a saltwater gargle (1⁄4 teaspoon salt in 1 cup warm water). The briny solution helps rinse away and neutralize acids in the throat, relieving the burning sensation and promoting fast healing of irritated mucous membranes.

If you have chronic heartburn, see a doctor. You may have gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), a potentially dangerous condition in which highly acidic gastric juices seep upward into the esophagus.

Battle Mouth Bugs
Even the healthiest mouth is home to millions of bacteria. These microscopic bad guys excrete chemicals that spur the growth of dental plaque. That’s the sticky coating that rots teeth and irritates gums. For some people, brushing and flossing simply aren’t good enough to keep these bugs in check. If that seems to be the case for you, ask your doctor about gargling each day with a 50/50 solution of water and 3% hydrogen peroxide. For even greater germ-killing punch, chlorhexidine mouthwash may be a better option. Both hydrogen peroxide and chlorhexidine are sold over the counter in drugstores.

Gargling Basics

  • Mix a fresh batch of gargle for every use. Better to waste a bit pouring it out than to leave it in your glass, where it might become contaminated with bacteria.
  • Use the hottest water you can comfortably tolerate. Cold gargles are ineffective.
  • Don’t swallow the gargle. Spit it out.

Clobber the Cold Virus
Next time you feel the sniffles coming on, you might try gargling with a dash of Tabasco sauce in water. Hot-sauce aficionados swear it’s the quickest way to open up clogged airways. Not hot for hot sauce? Use echinacea, the herbal virus-killer. Add 2 teaspoons tincture of echinacea to 1 cup water and gargle three times daily. In addition to easing throat pain, an echinacea gargle will give your immune system the boost it needs to fight the infection.

Lay Into Laryngitis
There’s no substitute for simply giving your voice a rest and boosting your intake of fluids. But you may be able to speed the healing process by gargling with myrrh (a few drops of tincture of myrrh in a cup of water). Highly astringent, myrrh is superb at combating inflammation. It’s an antiseptic too. Gargle six times a day — a bit of an effort, true, but well worth it.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest