As we enter the cold season in the Northern hemisphere, sore throats are starting to rear their ugly heads. But should we be drinking hot drinks or sucking on ice pops to sooth the pain?
Whether you are experiencing the common cold or the flu, a sore throat is likely going to be your companion for a few days. We are no strangers to the nuisance of sore throats in the Medical News Today editorial office.
But our opinions are divided between those who have grown up with the belief that hot drinks are the best remedy for sore throats and those who think that ice pops or ice cream are the go-to solution.
So, what is the best option?
Nerves signal pain
Adults get between two and five common colds every year. In school-aged children, this number ranges from seven to 10, and sore throats plague many when these infections strike.
While viruses and bacteria are the root cause of the sickness, our immune system is actually to blame for the symptoms that we experience. Macrophages are patrol cells of the immune system, who are constantly on the look-out for viruses and bacteria. Upon a close encounter, macrophages release immune molecules to kick-start the fight against these microorganisms.
Two such immune signaling molecules are bradykinin and prostaglandin E2, which stimulate nerve endings in our throat. This is what causes the sensation of pain.
Cold stops the pain
Prof. Ron Eccles — the previously director of the Common Cold Centre in the School of Biosciences at the University of Cardiff in the United Kingdom — is an expert in all things to do with the common cold.
I asked him whether ice pops — or ice lollies, as they are called in the U.K. — are a good option for sore throat. He said, "Yes, ice lollies would be a good treatment for sore throat as they have a local cooling effect on inflamed tissues and may have a specific inhibitory effect on pain-sensitive nerves in the throat."
In a 2013 article, Prof. Eccles explained the biology in more detail. Ice pops lower the temperature of the nerve endings in the throat, thereby reducing the pain signals. This method also activates a receptor called transient receptor potential melastin 8, which results in pain relief.
But what is the verdict on hot drinks?
Hot drinks have 'best effect'
Prof. Eccles explained to MNT what happens when we drink fluids while experiencing a sore throat. "Drinks are good for sore throat," he said, "as they promote salivation and help lubricate the throat."
What makes hot drinks so special, though? "Hot drinks are more tasty than cool drinks and promote more salivation and the sensory impact may provide a greater placebo effect in soothing pain," he explained.
Prof. Eccles tested this in a study of 30 patients, who reported that a hot fruit drink gave them immediate and long-lasting relief from their sore throat.
"Hot sweet drinks may work by increasing the levels of opioid pain killers in the pain areas of the brain," added Prof. Eccles.
"Hot [tasty] drinks have the best effect in soothing [a] sore throat."
Prof. Ron Eccles