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When I was a kid I remember having round after round of strep throat and ear infections. Followed up promptly with dozens (if not hundreds!) of rounds of antibiotics by age 5. Strep throat is a common childhood illness that can be rough on kids — (and mamas, too!). Now that I’ve learned more about natural immunity and gut health I have a much different perspective on strep throat.
While it sometimes requires antibiotics, there are plenty of science-backed herbs and other natural remedies worth trying. In this post, I’ll cover some ideas for soothing pain and discomfort. Plus a few scientifically validated herbal regimens to fight infection and support the immune response.
What is Strep Throat?
Strep throat (aka streptococcal pharyngitis), is a bacterial infection. It primarily affects the throat and tonsils. This infection is caused by a group of bacteria known as Streptococcus pyogenes or group A Streptococcus (also called group A strep or GAS).
“Strep,” as it’s often called, is highly contagious. It can spread through droplets when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or shares a glass or eating utensils. Strep tends to be more common in children and teens than adults, but anyone can get it.
Once exposed, it typically takes a few days for symptoms to develop.
Symptoms of Strep Throat
Most sore throats aren’t strep. If your symptoms are more like a cold, it’s probably a virus rather than strep bacteria. So, if a sore throat has symptoms like a runny nose, cough, or hoarse voice, it’s likely caused by a different illness.
Symptoms of a strep throat infection may include:
- Sore throat – especially a severe and sudden onset
- Difficulty swallowing due to an inflamed throat
- Red and swollen tonsils
- Red spots on the roof of the mouth
- White patches or streaks of pus on the tonsils
- Enlarged lymph nodes
- Fever of 101 degrees Fahrenheit or higher
- Body aches
- Fatigue or weakness
- Loss of appetite
- A fine, sandpaper-like red rash known as scarlet fever
It’s important to note not all sore threats are due to a strep infection. Viral infections, including the common cold, can cause similar symptoms. However, strep throat sometimes requires medical attention as it can require antibiotics to prevent complications.
Testing For Strep Throat
Your doctor can confirm strep throat with specialized testing. Here are some of the primary tests used to diagnose strep throat:
Rapid strep test: This is a fast way to find out if Group A Strep bacteria are behind the symptoms. For this test, a healthcare professional will swab the throat and test the sample immediately in the office. Results are generally available in 15 minutes or less. If it’s positive, a doctor can prescribe antibiotics, but if it’s negative they’ll often order a throat culture.
Throat culture: A throat culture helps the medical provider confirm the presence of strep bacteria. It takes more time than the rapid test as you have to wait for bacteria to grow from the swab sample. This test is more important in children because strep can turn into rheumatic fever if left untreated. Adults don’t tend to develop rheumatic fever from strep.
Soothing Strep Symptoms Naturally
Many people opt for prescription antibiotics when treating strep throat to eliminate the bacterial infection. The decision to take antibiotics for strep (or not) is a highly debated topic in the natural health world. Consult with your healthcare provider and choose the best option for you.
Whether you’re looking for some supportive remedies or choose not to use antibiotics, here are some home remedies that can help.
Gargling with warm salt water can help soothe a sore throat and reduce inflammation. Mix half a teaspoon of salt in 8 ounces of warm water and gargle with the solution several times a day. Our family uses mineral-rich natural salt instead of table salt.
Apple Cider Vinegar
Apple cider vinegar (ACV) can also help step. Gargling with diluted ACV can help break down the biofilm of strep bacteria, making it easier to eliminate. Researchers found apple cider vinegar eradicated biofilms by about 95%. Date vinegar was slightly better than ACV, eliminating the biofilm 100%.
Oil pulling involves swishing oil through your mouth and teeth to pull out toxins. Research backs up the effectiveness of oil pulling for strep bacteria. A randomized clinical trial used sesame oil ten minutes a day before brushing. After just one to two weeks strep bacteria went down after beginning the oil pulling regimen.
While this study used sesame oil, it’s worth trying coconut oil, which also has antibacterial effects. Make it easy by concocting some coconut oil pulling chews.
Warm Fluids/Herbal Teas
Try drinking warm fluids, like herbal teas, warm water with lemon and honey, or broth. These can provide soothing throat relief and help keep the body hydrated. Certain herbal teas, such as chamomile, marshmallow root, licorice root, and slippery elm, have natural soothing properties to relieve discomfort.
These herbs are also packed with antimicrobial benefits to fight harmful bacteria. Plus they help restore a damaged gut and support the immune system. Sipping on warm herbal teas throughout the day can provide soothing relief.
Here’s a recipe for Sore Throat Tea with marshmallow root, licorice root, raw honey, and lemon.
Slippery Elm Lozenges
Slippery elm bark has demulcent and anti-inflammatory properties that can help relieve throat pain. It can also help break down biofilms. As an alternative or in addition to drinking the tea, you can try sucking on slippery elm lozenges. You can also try these homemade herbal cough drops, which include slippery elm, honey, and other soothing ingredients.
Honey has antimicrobial properties and can help soothe a sore throat. Add a teaspoon of honey to warm water, herbal tea, or lemon water. You can even take a teaspoon directly as a natural cough syrup. Note: Honey should not be given to children under one year of age due to the risk of botulism.
Elderberries are full of antioxidants and have antibacterial and antiviral activity. Research from 2011 also shows they work against several bacterial strains that cause strep throat. These elderberry popsicles are especially great for sore throats. They’re cold, soothing, and have vitamin C and electrolytes to support the body’s immune response.
Natural “Antibiotics” For Strep Throat
Oregano (Origanum vulgare) is commonly used as a culinary herb and has shown antimicrobial properties against various bacteria. Studies suggest oregano extracts and essential oil may have antibacterial effects against Streptococcus pyogenes.
Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) is known for its aromatic properties and is traditionally used as a natural remedy for respiratory infections. Some studies indicate that thyme extracts, including essential oil, may have antibacterial activity against Streptococcus pyogenes. You can try a thyme facial steam outlined in this blog post.
Garlic is widely recognized for its antimicrobial properties. Allicin, a compound in garlic, has demonstrated antibacterial properties against several bacteria, including Streptococcus pyogenes. However, more research is needed to determine its effectiveness specifically for strep throat.
If you want to combine its benefits with honey, try this recipe for fermented garlic and honey.
Echinacea (E.chinacea purpurea and E. angustifolia) is commonly used to support the immune system. According to some scientific research, echinacea extracts may have antimicrobial activity against Streptococcus pyogenes. Some studies indicate echinacea supplements may help reduce the severity and duration of symptoms associated with throat infections.
Echinacea works best if it’s taken at the very first sign of a sore throat. Once the infection has had a chance to set in, echinacea isn’t very helpful. You can drink echinacea tea or use a tincture.
Some herbalists recommend adults use 30 drops to 4 ml of echinacea tincture every hour until symptoms subside. Adjust the dose down as necessary for kids. You can also follow the recommended dosage on your product’s label.
Sage (Salvia officinalis) also has antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties. Studies show sage extracts, including essential oil, may work against Streptococcus pyogenes and other bacteria. Gargling with sage tea can help alleviate throat pain and reduce inflammation. Steep 1 to 2 teaspoons of dried sage leaves in hot water for 10 minutes, then strain and use it as a mouthwash several times daily.
Bee balm (Monarda spp) tastes similar to oregano and has long been used for sore throats. It’s a potent antimicrobial and antibacterial herb, with some evidence it may fight strep bacteria. Bee balm is also rich in volatile oils like thymol. Try making a strong tea with bee balm to use as a mouthwash and gargle.
How Do Doctors Treat Strep Throat?
If you go to the clinic, healthcare providers will usually begin by recommending plenty of water and sticking to soft foods like soup. They’ll also prescribe a course of antibiotics to fight strep bacteria. While penicillin and amoxicillin are the most common, some people have allergies and need an alternative antibiotic prescription.
While these antibiotics are effective against strep infections, they can also devastate the gut. Doctors may also recommend over-the-counter pain medications like acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen to address the pain. These, too, have consequences for the gut and immune system over time.
What To Do if You Need to Take Antibiotics
If you do end up needing antibiotic treatment, it’s important to give your gut what it needs to recover. Antibiotics damage gut bacteria and your intestinal lining, so it’s important to follow them up with gut-healing remedies. Prebiotics and probiotics are also a critical part of this process.
Here are some ways to support your gut:
This yeast probiotic species helps restore the gut after antibiotics. S. Boulardii functions like a probiotic in the body, protecting the intestinal lining. Researchers have connected gut lining damage with many gastrointestinal diseases. There’s evidence S. Boulardii can help several GI conditions, including IBS, Crohn’s, and C. diff. This supplement is widely available, sometimes even at your local drugstore.
Adding a spore-forming probiotic can help increase the diversity of your microbiome after antibiotic use. These probiotics can address leaky gut and reduce inflammation while increasing the growth of beneficial bacteria. Just Thrive is the spore-forming probiotic I use.
Bone broth from free-range animals is a nutrient-rich superfood that can help the gut heal. It’s rich in amino acids like glutamine and glycine we need to heal the intestinal lining.
Marshmallow root and licorice to the rescue again! These herbs soothe the gut as well as they do the throat. Mountain Rose Herbs explains more about marshmallow root:
Marshmallow root… has been approved by the German Commission E in supporting inflammation of the gastric mucosa, and for irritation of the oral and pharyngeal mucosa. When combined with other herbs, it is additionally used for mild respiratory symptoms, including cough.
You can even use marshmallow tea to make actual marshmallows. Learn more about how to prepare marshmallow tea here. Licorice is also helpful in healing the stomach lining after ibuprofen damage.
Final Thoughts on Strep Throat
Strep throat can lead to severe complications like rheumatic fever or kidney problems, so it’s not something to take lightly. But it may be well worth trying natural remedies first. Be sure to closely monitor symptoms, and consult your healthcare provider for advice.
Have you or your children had strep throat? Did you find a home remedy that worked? Share with us below!