Want a free, easy — but noisy — way to avoid catching a cold this winter? Try gargling with water three times a day.
Yes, gargling. That old-fashioned thing your mom used to make you do when you had a sore throat (and your kids would do in the bathroom just because it sounds so hilarious) — it actually works.
In Japan, where gargling is revered as a way to stay healthy, a 2005 study found that gargling regularly with plain tap water during the common-cold season helped prevent more upper respiratory tract infections than even gargling with a mild antiseptic mouthwash.
Plus, if you catch a cold anyway, gargling with warm salt water can ease your misery. The new Mayo Clinic Book of Home Remedies, due out at the end of this month, says the homespun remedy for sore throats really has medical merit. The salt helps draw out excess fluid from the throat's inflamed tissues, says the book's medical editor, Philip Hagen, M.D., "and warm water is more comfortable on sore tissues and it may help cleanse them a bit better."
The Mayo Clinic suggests dissolving 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon of salt in eight ounces of warm water for gargling, but if you don't like the taste of salty water, a little lemon juice and honey mixed with warm water would have the same effect, says Hagen.
While there's still no cure for the common cold, which can be caused by any one of 200 viruses, there are simple, inexpensive steps that older Americans can take to stay healthy during the coming cold season. Washing hands, of course — that's an easy one but too often ignored. And a quick gargle every day certainly can't hurt, and could even help, agrees Hagen.
In the Japan study, nearly 400 healthy volunteers ages 18 to 65 were assigned to three groups: gargling three times a day with tap water; gargling three times daily with a diluted iodine mouthwash (popular in Japan for preventing illness); and a control group whose members were told to keep doing whatever they normally did.
After 60 days, researchers found that those who gargled had fewer colds, but, surprisingly, it was those who used just plain water who remained the healthiest — getting 36 percent fewer respiratory infections than those in the control group. (The iodine garglers had only slightly fewer respiratory infections than did the control group.) The study also found that when subjects did get sick, gargling helped lessen their symptoms.
Precisely how gargling helps prevent upper respiratory tract infections is still unclear. The study's authors noted that maybe the chlorine levels in the tap water helped. Others hypothesize that perhaps gargling helps cleanse the throat of viruses.
Whatever the reason, tipping your head back and letting water burble noisily in the back of your throat can help relieve cold symptoms and may even help you avoid getting those germs in the first place.
Just remember, if you're gargling with warm salt water, be sure to gargle and spit — not swallow — says Hagen. "We tend to get too much salt in our diet anyway."
Candy Sagon writes about health and nutrition for the Bulletin.