Do throat lozenges actually work?

Sure, they taste good, but do they actually soothe a sore throat or quiet a cough? Whether it’s flu season or you’re fighting off an icky summer cold, throat lozenges are one of the go-to items you may find yourself reaching for at the pharmacy. There are plenty of different flavors and brands to choose from, so it’s important to be strategic about choosing the right throat lozenges to relieve your throat symptoms.

Throat lozenges generally contain painkillers, antibacterial agents, antitussives, pectin, menthol and/or eucalyptus.

Benzydamine hydrochloride and flurbiprofen are painkillers that belong to the group known as NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) that help reduce swelling. A number of good-quality studies have shown that flurbiprofen lozenges and benzydamine hydrochloride given as a spray or gargle provide effective relief from sore throat symptoms, including difficulty in swallowing.

Antibacterial agents
Amylmetacresol, cetylpyridinium chloride, dichlorobenzyl alcohol and hexylresorcinol are antibacterial agents that help fight against disease-causing bacteria. But the majority of sore throats are caused by viral infections rather than bacterial, so for the most part antibacterial agents in lozenges aren’t going to help.

Local anaesthetics numb the area they’re in contact with and provide temporary relief from soreness. Lignocaine hydrochloride and benzocaine are used widely in medical and dental practice for numbing the mouth and throat during minor surgical procedures, or when a tube must be inserted into the windpipe. Benzocaine, lignocaine hydrochloride, benzydamine hydrochloride and hexylresorcinol also have local anaesthetic properties.

Antitussives (cough suppressants)
Pholcodine and dextromethorphan hydrobromide are antitussives that are intended to help suppress dry, unproductive (non-phlegmy) coughs, which can contribute to making your throat sore. But a wide-scale review of trials testing antitussives (mainly dextromethorphan) found that they were no more effective than a placebo for treating coughs in most cases. And a much higher concentration of dextromethorphan was used in the trials than is found in throat lozenges.

Menthol is made synthetically or obtained from mint oils. It’s the component of peppermint oil that’s thought to be responsible for most of its therapeutic properties. It gives a cooling and soothing sensation when you inhale or eat it, thanks to its ability to chemically trigger cold-sensitive receptors in the skin. But the effect of nasal decongestion from menthol is subjective — studies show that although people feel decongested after inhaling menthol vapour, there’s no actual improvement in the nasal airway when airflow is measured.

Just like menthol, eucalyptus is thought to act as a nasal decongestant. However, there’s a lack of controlled, clinical studies to support its effectiveness.

Pectin is commonly used as a thickening agent in foods like jam and jelly. In throat lozenges it’s used to coat the throat, and in doing so has a soothing effect in much the same way as a teaspoon of honey would.

When you suck on a lozenge, it starts to dissolve and release medicine. It is intended to dissolve slowly in the mouth to temporarily suppress the cough, and lubricate and soothe irritated tissues of the throat. Some have medications that help fight colds, and most have anesthetic to help ease the pain. Lozenges also contain menthol or eucalyptus, which can help cool and sooth the throat. Others contain honey, which is known to have cough suppression properties.

What if you don’t want to depend on throat lozenges for a cough? You can find a lot of natural cough remedies out there. Dr. Brahmbhatt shares some legit at-home sore throat remedies (and if those don’t cut it, here are more DIY fixes worth a try):

  • Stay hydrated. The more water and fluids you take in, the higher chance you have that your throat will stay moist.
  • Chew on cloves and gargle with salt water: You’ll feel a huge relief.
  • Try turmeric. Gargle with turmeric to reduce inflammation in the throat. It’s also a great ingredient to tackle various GI issues.

Throat lozenges can be effective when it comes to relieving your symptoms, and if you reach for a menthol-based brand, you’re in good shape. As annoying as a sore throat can be, it’s important to remember that the discomfort is temporary. Something as simple as staying hydrated and getting rest will help your body fight off the common cold, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. You’ll feel better again soon.

Read my related post: Why do we use straws?

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