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A sore throat falls into one of two categories: a viral infection accompanied by a runny nose and respiratory symptoms or a bacterial infection of the throat and tonsils by group A Streptococcus—strep throat. Millions of people are diagnosed with strep every year. Up to 37% of children and between 5-10% of adults¹ with sore throats have strep throat.
Strep throat is unusual in that while it can be incredibly painful, the infection is usually mild. The symptoms mimic that of a viral infection, with few differences. Symptoms include:
Pain when you swallow
Swollen, red tonsils, sometimes with telltale white patches of pus
Tiny red spots on the roof of the mouth
Swollen lymph nodes in the neck.
Children with strep may also have a headache or stomach ache, and nausea or vomiting. Severe strep may cause a rash due to Streptococcus bacteria making a toxin that causes a rash on the skin and high fever, in which case the diagnosis is scarlet fever.
The CDC² recommends a round of antibiotics to treat strep throat. Left untreated, strep can lead to acute rheumatic fever, abscess, or mastoiditis (a serious bacterial infection that affects the mastoid bone behind the ear).
If you've tested positive for strep with a rapid antigen detection test culture, you should complete the course of antibiotics to ensure a complete recovery. The antibiotics serve two other purposes beyond clearing the infection:
You're symptomatic for fewer days
Reduced chances for transmitting the infection.
Recently, natural remedies—specifically herbal teas, have been getting attention from scientists as potential supplemental treatments for strep.
The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that around 80%³ of the global population relies on traditional herbal remedies as a major source of primary health care, and the use of these complementary therapies has increased in more developed countries in recent years.
Close to 30% of Americans use herbal supplements, but the availability of antibiotics makes a round of meds the better approach to curing strep. If strep isn't treated properly, complications are possible—sinus and ear infections, abscesses in the tonsils or neck, and even rheumatic fever are not uncommon.
You probably have some herbs that fight strep bacteria in your pantry—clove, sage, licorice, oregano, and thyme—and maybe a few in your garden—geranium, barberry, and olive. The research found that when infused with hot water, the components of these herbs may be beneficial in managing the symptoms and treating the infection due to the herbs’ impact on the bacteria.
Let's think about a herbal hot water infusion in real life—it's herbal tea. People have been drinking hot tea, perhaps with honey to soothe a sore throat, for hundreds and even thousands of years. As it turns out, some of that tea probably had antibiotic properties that did indeed cure bacterial infections such as strep throat.
Biomedicines published an article¹ in 2019 that detailed much of the research involving herb and plant properties that inhibit the growth of the S. pyogenes bacteria that causes strep throat. Licorice showed the greatest potential for killing the bacteria and stopping its proliferation; researchers saw results within 12 hours, as opposed to the 24 or more that other plants needed to be effective.
Non-toxic concentrations of barberry root, licorice root, thyme, and oregano flowering shoots showed the most promise for developing herb teas or biomedicine to treat strep.
Before you go and load up on herbal tea to cure your strep throat, keep in mind that this research was conducted in a highly regulated laboratory setting, and you may not get the same results from your tea apothecary's brew.
"Licorice" is a translation of the Greek "glykys", or sweet, and "rhiza" or root—a sweet root. The active compound in licorice is triterpene glycoside glycyrrhizin, which has anticancer, anti-inflammatory, and antiviral properties.
Barberry root contains berberine, a chemical that has many medicinal uses, from managing diabetes and liver disease to gallstones and urinary tract diseases. It also has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
Ginger is another herb that has several medicinal uses; recent research⁴ has focused on the antibacterial, antifungal, and antiviral components. Some ginger extracts look promising in inhibiting the growth of the Streptococcus mutans strain of strep, so it may have the same effect on the Group A strep virus that causes strep throat.
Herbs that have antimicrobial, analgesic, anti-inflammatory, or antiinflammatory properties are most common in herbal teas. So far, the research has yet to be able to break down the individual components of the herbs to determine which ones are most beneficial in fighting bacteria.
Yes, herbal teas are natural, but that doesn't mean drinking them comes without risk. Not all herbal teas are decaffeinated, for instance, and may cause problems if you have high blood pressure. Some herbs interact with certain medications and may change efficacy.
Finally, herbal teas may also have ingredients that can cause harm—licorice and fenugreek, for example, can become toxic if you consume too much. So, moderation is key when consuming any herbs or supplements, regardless of how beneficial they might be in regular doses. The bottom line is that more is not always better.
If you have symptoms of strep throat, it's fine to drink herbal teas to soothe your throat until you see your doctor for a strep test. Antibiotics will eliminate the strep bacteria, although in many cases, the infection will clear up on its own within a week or so. If you start taking antibiotics, finish your course to prevent recurrence or resistance.
You can continue to drink herbal teas while you're taking antibiotics. Ensure to drink moderate tea daily (around 2-3 cups a day) to avoid any adverse effects or interactions. It does take a few days for the symptoms to disappear, but using herbal teas may prevent your symptoms from worsening and help accelerate your recovery.
Pharyngitis (Strep throat) | Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Scarlet fever: All you need to know | Centers for Disease Control and Prevention