Can Peroxide Help With Strep Throat?

That little brown bottle of hydrogen peroxide tucked away in most bathroom cabinets has many potential uses. A 3% hydrogen peroxide solution can kill mold and mildew as effectively as bleach, foam away soap scum, remove stains, and brighten dingy whites. It's also a potent antibacterial agent that many people consider the first-aid staple. 

Whether you've been using hydrogen peroxide to clean your home for years or keeping a bottle on hand to disinfect minor skin injuries, you probably know that hydrogen peroxide can also be used for oral care.

Once you realize how effectively hydrogen peroxide can eliminate the harmful bacteria in your mouth, it's only natural to wonder if you can use the bottle you have on hand to ease the symptoms of strep throat and help clear the infection. Although you'll likely find numerous sources suggesting hydrogen peroxide is a "natural" alternative to commonly prescribed pharmaceutical solutions, it's important to understand its possible benefits and potential risks. 

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What causes strep throat?

Strep throat is an infection caused by a group of bacteria called Group A Streptococcus (group A strep). People infected with group A strep can spread the bacteria to others by talking, sneezing, coughing, or through contact with open sores on their skin (impetigo). 

If you're in close contact with someone infected, you could start feeling the unpleasant symptoms within two to five days. Left untreated, strep throat can cause serious health complications, including scarlet fever, rheumatic fever, kidney disease, and streptococcal toxic shock syndrome.  

What is hydrogen peroxide?

Hydrogen peroxide is a chemical compound made up of hydrogen and oxygen with a sharp, potentially irritating odor. It's used as a component in rocket fuels and foam rubber production and to bleach cotton, wood, and other textiles. 

The compound is also used for wastewater treatment, whitening teeth, bleaching hair, and disinfecting medical equipment. The foaming action you'll see when using hydrogen peroxide to disinfect cuts and abrasions is a sign of its interaction with a specific enzyme in your tissues (catalase) that converts the compound (H2O2) back to water (H2O) and oxygen (O).

Will gargling with peroxide kill strep throat infections?

Personal care products typically contain 3-9% hydrogen peroxide. It’s true that a 3% solution of hydrogen peroxide, such as what you’ll find at your local pharmacy, has considerable antiviral, antibacterial, and antifungal potential. However, killing the strep bacteria in your throat would require saturating the area with concentrations high enough to cause severe tissue damage.

In addition to risking serious personal injury, using hydrogen peroxide in your throat would not help to keep the strep infection from spreading throughout your body. Instead, consult your healthcare provider if you have a sore throat lasting more than a few days. Your doctor may perform a rapid strep test or throat culture to confirm the cause of your symptoms. 

If you have strep throat, your physician will generally prescribe an antibiotic. With this medication, you should start feeling better within a few days of treatment while significantly reducing the likelihood of infecting others. 

Although it's not a cure for strep throat, many people claim that gargling with hydrogen peroxide helps ease their discomfort.

Is it safe to gargle with undiluted hydrogen peroxide?

You should not gargle with undiluted hydrogen peroxide. Although 3% hydrogen peroxide solutions are safe for external use, the compound is highly acidic, harmful when inhaled, and potentially toxic when swallowed, even in small amounts. 

Whether using hydrogen peroxide to help keep your breath fresh or soothe your throat, the hydrogen peroxide you buy over the counter should always be diluted with water and never swallowed. The risks associated with overuse or accidental ingestion can include:

  • Weakened tooth enamel and an increased risk of cavities

  • Erosion of the bonding agents used to place veneers and orthodontic brackets

  • A temporary oral condition that could make your tongue look hairy or turn black

  • Nausea, vomiting, irritation, or burning of the esophagus and digestive tract

  • An allergic reaction that could cause irritation, hives, itching, difficulty breathing, hoarseness, or trouble swallowing

How to gargle with hydrogen peroxide safely

Although you shouldn't gargle with hydrogen peroxide straight from the bottle, you can use what you have on hand to make a gentler solution, which is far less likely to damage your throat or cause further irritation. Before you begin, check the label to be sure you're starting with a 3% solution.

Once you've confirmed you've got the right concentration, you'll need to be sure it's properly diluted. Be aware of the following recommendations:

  • Create a 1% solution by mixing 1 tablespoon of 3% hydrogen peroxide with 2 tablespoons of water

  • Use no more solutions than you need to reduce the risk of swallowing

  • Tilt your head back and gargle for 30-90 seconds (no longer)

  • After gargling, spit out the solution (do not swallow)

  • Rinse your mouth with water or mouthwash to minimize the risk of swallowing any residue

  • Repeat as needed throughout the day to help ease your discomfort

Are there benefits to using hydrogen peroxide as a mouth rinse?

While hydrogen peroxide is not a cure for strep throat, its foaming action makes any potentially irritating phlegm or mucus in your throat less sticky. This can help to clear your throat of secretions, making you more comfortable. 

You can also use this powerful disinfectant as a mouth rinse by using the same 1% solution recommended for gargling. The directions for doing this are often printed on the label of the hydrogen peroxide bottle. Many dentists recommend using a hydrogen peroxide rinse for the following concerns:

Improving oral health

When used as a cost-effective mouth rinse, hydrogen peroxide helps kill the germs that cause bad breath and gum disease (gingivitis). A review of multiple studies¹ shows that the compound helps reduce gum inflammation and plaque formation when used after brushing and flossing.

You can also use a 1% hydrogen peroxide solution to help prevent infection when you have a minor mouth injury or canker sores. 

Whitening teeth  

Hydrogen peroxide, or a similar chemical, is the active ingredient in most in-office and over-the-counter teeth whitening products. However, whitening products can cause gum irritation and tooth sensitivity. These products contain hydrogen peroxide at relatively high concentrations, which can lead to irritation.

Instead, consider swishing a solution with equal amounts of hydrogen peroxide and water in your mouth for 30 seconds. Studies² suggest that hydrogen peroxide mouth rinses can help to brighten dull smiles over time. 

Is there a safer alternative to hydrogen peroxide for strep throat pain?

Although some people report favorable results using hydrogen peroxide to ease the discomfort of strep throat, it's not right for everyone. Many people have difficulty gargling without swallowing some of the liquid. Hydrogen peroxide should never be swallowed. 

Although ingesting a small amount of a 1% solution is unlikely to cause lasting harm, there is still some risk. If you're concerned about the possibility of swallowing diluted hydrogen peroxide while you’re gargling with it, consider gargling with salt water instead.   

Gargling with salt water helps to reduce inflammation by drawing out excess fluids from swollen tissues and can help to remove sticky mucus that’s causing discomfort.

To make a throat-soothing salt solution, try stirring a quarter of a teaspoon of table salt into four ounces of warm water. Gargle for 10 to 30 seconds and then spit out the solution. Many people gargle with salt water 2 ­­– 4 times each day. Be sure to consult your physician for specific directions.

The lowdown

Hydrogen peroxide is commonly found in many homes. Although you'll find numerous sources suggesting that hydrogen peroxide is an effective home treatment for strep throat, the truth is that it's not a cure, and it can’t get rid of the bacteria that cause strep throat. 

However, gargling with diluted hydrogen peroxide could help ease discomfort while you wait for a prescribed antibiotic to clear the infection. If you're concerned about gargling or rinsing your mouth with a substance that should never be swallowed, salt water is a safer alternative that’s soothing and natural. If you have throat pain lasting more than a few days, consult your healthcare provider.

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