A friend of mine sent me an email asking me if gargling with saltwater could be helpful for overall health and flu prevention.  From my nursing background I remembered of course that is was often recommended for sore throats and “colds” and is very effective…so that sent me on a search…could salt water could be effective as a gargle or a nasal wash to prevent or treat colds or the flu???

So What Does Gargling With Saltwater Do Anyway?

There are a variety of theories about this… most of them draw from the same chemical theory of osmosis (remember your high school chemistry??). The basic premise of osmosis is that water will move through a thin membrane into another fluid of a higher concentration. This movement happens until the concentration inside the membrane is the same of that outside of it. The two theories on how gargling salt water helps a sore throat deals with osmosis in two very different ways.

Eggplant Salt
Water tends to follow salt. Have you ever salted slices of raw eggplant for a recipe? The salt draws moisture from the eggplant. After a few minutes, you can see beads of fluid on the surface of the eggplant. Well, think of your throat a bit like that eggplant. ;-)

Osmosis and Bacteria

One premise is that bacteria cause most cases of sore throat. Bacteria are simple one-celled organisms that group together and often cause illness. Although bacteria are sometimes helpful to the human body,  they are the catalyst behind many human illnesses, including sore throats. These single-celled organisms are full of fluid, and the saltwater is highly concentrated, more so than the fluid inside the bacteria. While gargling, the saltwater stays in contact with the bacteria long enough to start osmosis. The fluid inside the bacteria moves across its membrane into the briny salt water, until the concentration of fluid inside the bacteria is the same as outside. Of course, this leaves the bacteria sufficiently lacking in the fluid it needs to operate therefore the saltwater works by dehydrating the bacteria. Clever no?

Osmosis and Edema

Another school of thought is that the immediate relief from gargling salt water wouldn’t come from killing the bacteria, but eliminating the swelling. This theory uses osmosis the same way, however. It holds that the salt water, while gargling is in contact with the swollen throat. The fluid in the throat tissue causing the edema or swelling is of a lower concentration than the briny salt water. Therefore, the edema fluid passes through the throat tissue into the brine until the fluid on both side of that tissue is of the same concentration. Since the soreness is caused by the edema and the edema by the fluid buildup, eliminating the fluid eliminates the sore throat.

Everyone has a different recipe for a saltwater gargle, but all recipes tend to be fairly salty. If the gargle has a higher salt concentration than your cells’ salt concentration, it will tend to draw out some of the edema fluid from the mucosa of the throat. This will relieve some of the sore throat symptoms. The relief is real, but short-lived, since the gargle has done nothing to remove the cause of the sore throat.

Gargling with saltwater may also has a cleansing action. If you are suffering from postnasal drainage due to a bacterial sinus infection or allergies, the mucus that drains from your nasal cavity tends to promote an inflammatory response. As this stuff drains down the back of your throat, it leaves a trail of inflamed tissues in its wake. Frequent gargling with saltwater will help minimize this problem.

You need to be a bit careful…if the solution is too salty you will dry out the mucosa of the throat…not good. This could lead to even greater irritation than what you started with. A good recipe is the salt solution should taste a little salty, but not overwhelmingly so. Begin with one teaspoon of salt per pint of water. Once the salt has dissolved, taste it. If it tastes like spit, add a bit more salt until it begins to taste salty.

Nasal Irrigation

Neti Pot Used In Nasal Irrigation

This is the same practice except now we are discussing the nose.  In Ayurvedic Medicine (India), a common practice is nasal irrigation with a salty water.  A common tool to use to deliver this solution is called a neti pot and has the same principals as gargling.  This method has received a lot of study in the western world and is now recommended by many western ENT physicians as a way to maintain sinus health.

So keeping your throat, larynx and nose might be a good practice to take up!