Gargling to prevent colds – just a Japanese old wives’ tale?

Gargling to prevent colds – just a Japanese old wives’ tale? Photo from Feminiya

TOKYO —

When I was a college student doing homestay in Tokyo, I mentioned to my host mother one day that some of my classmates had been passing a cold around, and I hoped I wouldn’t catch it too. “Oh, you should gargle,” she told me.

I was a little skeptic, and not just because she had previously told me that there was a pressure point in my ring finger that would make me feel warm during the winter, which she demonstrated by squeezing it with all her might (it worked in the sense that pain produces a sensation similar to heat). I’d never heard of the theory that just gargling, even with ordinary tap water, would keep you from catching a cold, but it turns out this is a pretty common belief in Japan, which some researchers say is scientifically sound.

The custom of gargling to prevent sickness goes back centuries to the Heian Period, which lasted from 794 to 1185. In Japan, it’s considered to be one of the two common sense ways of not getting sick during the winter, along with washing your hands.

It’s a practice that’s continued through to the current day in Japan, even if it’s something that adults are more likely to conscientiously do. “When I was in elementary school, I hardly ever washed my hands or gargled,” recalled one online commentator, “so obviously, I caught a lot of colds.”

“This is something people only do in Japan,” offered another. “In other countries, it’s considered vulgar behavior, and there’s never been any custom of doing it.”

This is sort of a half-truth. Even as a young kid growing up in California, my parents would tell me to heat up a cup of water, sprinkle in some salt, and gargle if I had a sore throat, and it actually did wonders. Gargling with lukewarm tap water is a surprise for many new arrivals to Japan though, and I admit that in the building I used to work in, it freaked me out when employees from other companies would do this in the rest room we all shared, often without bothering to rinse the sink out that thoroughly afterwards.

But could this seemingly odd custom actually be effective in preventing colds? After all, I used to think wearing a cotton mask in public was laughable overkill, but after finding out just how big a difference they make when you’re dealing with hay fever, I literally went out and bought a whole box of the things.

For years, medical researchers have mostly held that gargling wouldn’t do much to prevent a cold, as the viruses that cause the sickness were unlikely to be washed away before being absorbed into the body’s cells. Oddly enough, though, no experiments were done to test the effects of gargling until 2002, when a group of researchers led by professor Takashi Kawamura from Kyoto University decided to evaluate the ingrained home medical practice.

The study participants were separated into three groups, one that gargled with water, another that gargled with an iodine solution, and a third that did not gargle at all.

During the year-long investigation, the third group showed the highest propensity of colds, with a rate of 26.4 infected per 100 individuals. The group that gargled with the iodine solution did only slightly better, with a statistically insignificantly lower infection rate of 23.6 people per 100. However, the group that gargled with water was dramatically more resilient, with only 17 per 100 becoming sick.

Similarly dramatic results were achieved by Tatsuya Noda, a researcher from the Hamamatsu University School of Medicine. In his work with elementary school children, he compared the rate of cold infection among groups that did not gargle and those that did with tap water, a slat solution, and green tea.

Once again, the group that didn’t gargle was the most likely to get sick. Tap water garglers had a lower infection rate, and the salt solution group’s was lower still, but the least likely to become sick were the children who gargled with green tea, as they caught colds at a 70% lower rate than those who didn’t gargle at all.

However, the researchers haven’t definitively determined why they got the result they did, so right now the data is circumstantial. Still, it appears there may be some merit behind coming home from the office and gargling after you change out of your work clothes.

But while gargling might be helpful in warding off a cold, there’s still nothing that shows it’s effective in keeping you from getting hit with a case on influenza. The heavier hitting influenza viruses can be absorbed into the cells of the respiratory tract in just 20 minutes, so if you’re planning to keep them at bay through gargling, you’ve got a pretty intense schedule to keep up.

To prevent influenza, doctors are still recommending the things they always have. Get vaccinated, avoid crowds, get sufficient rest and nutrition, observe “cough etiquette,” and keep your hands clean. Although honestly, if you’re old enough to be concerned about catching the flu, you’re old enough to know you should cover your mouth when you cough and wash your hands.

Source: Naver Matome

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  • -1

    Namaman

    There is no way I'm going to gargle with a "slat" solution.

  • 3

    Tessa

    Could it be the tea? Got a friend who married into a family from Shizuoka, the green tea capital of Japan. According to her, even children drink green tea like it's water, and they gargle with it at school. She's noticed they catch fewer colds than children in other parts of Japan.

  • -2

    LH10

    lol really? weird

  • 0

    papigiulio

    actually gargling doesn't help against the flu/cold however it is very good when you have a sore throat.

  • 9

    rickyvee

    my japanese wife swears by the gargling method. every morning and every time we come home from going outside, it's always straight to the bathroom for handwashing and gargling. whatever floats your boat, i guess. but i think a lot of it is psychological. you think something is going to help you so it does.

  • 0

    kimuzukashiiiii

    I would say that its the green tea, not the gargling, that is killing the germs...

  • 6

    gogogo

    The Japanese government released a press release a few years back saying gargling does nothing.

  • 0

    blvtzpk

    There's actually research on this from reputable medical sites on the Internet. In short, there have not been sufficient tests to prove whether it does prevent illnesses or not. Relieve from sore throats, yes, but as a preventative measure it's highly spurious.

    It can't hurt, but it won't do any good.

    As I've written before, it's when the kiddies in post nuclear-disaster Fukushima were told to gargle after their limited trips to the playground that I got angry - convincing those at most risk that gargling with water would reduce their chance of radiation exposure...so sad.

  • -2

    Disillusioned

    Only one-hundred people is hardly a conclusive survey. I don't gargle and have not had a cold for five years. I do, however, thoroughly wash my hands many times a day and use hand sanitiser. Most cold germs are transmitted by touch and are contracted through the eyes. You touch a germ ridden surface, put your finger in your eye and, 'Bang!' you have a cold! Saliva has many anti-bacterial properties, so by gargling it away you are increasing your chances of infection.

  • 11

    Reckless

    in my uncivilized part of the world we prevented catching colds by avoiding subway cars packed to 300 per cent capacity face to face with people with out of control halitosis, alcoholic breath and deep and heavy smoke residue,,,

  • 0

    NZguy

    Gargling does have some advantages.

    Gargling with salt water can help to dislodge food residue and tonsiliths from your tonsils and other areas of your mouth that brushing your teeth can't. I guess gargling with normal water would be less effective as salt water though.

  • 1

    CH3CHO

    DisillusionedMar. 14, 2014 - 10:14AM JST

    Only one-hundred people is hardly a conclusive survey

    Well.

    with a rate of 26.4 infected per 100 individuals.

    If they had studied 100 people, they would not have had decimal point in the results.

  • 3

    NZguy

    If they had studied 100 people, they would not have had decimal point in the results.

    That figure is just out of 100 to make it easier to understand.

    In the actual study, they only had 24 participants spread among each group.

  • 0

    Bartholomew Harte

    people from all over the world have been using the ol' salt water/gargle for as long as i can remember & it works in clearing ones throat ,as for the cold virus i think the hands spread it the most.

  • 0

    CrazyJoe

    When I attended college in Cambridge MA, I had a roommate who used to gargle like someone just pulled the plug on Lake Michigan.

  • -1

    Qamar

    Crazy Joe, thank you for making me laugh really loudly haha XD!! I think it is the green tea if anything. Handwashing is a great to protect against cold and flu tho :)

  • -3

    smithinjapan

    It's not 'vulgar' to gargle, although it's something better suited to doing at home or in a private bathroom, and cleaning or at least rinsing the sink after and not just walking away after spitting it in said sink or a drinking fountain. Also, it is something we do indeed in Western countries, although as many have pointed out it's usually with a salt-water solution and for the purpose of helping a sore throat. Gargling would do nothing to prevent a cold virus because if it's in the throat then it's already in the body -- you don't have to eat it to absorb it or anything.

  • -1

    Frungy

    NZguyMar. 14, 2014 - 10:46AM JST Gargling does have some advantages. Gargling with salt water can help to dislodge food residue and tonsiliths from your tonsils and other areas of your mouth that brushing your teeth can't. I guess gargling with normal water would be less effective as salt water though.

    ... and there's a direct correlation between oral health and overall health. It might be because people who gargle also brush their teeth, and people who also brush their teeth tend to pay more attention to health and hygiene generally. It is also worth noting that one of the factors in contracting colds during winter is that the low humidity dries out nasal mucus (snot), and nasal mucus is a major defense against inhaled viruses and bacteria. Gargling may help to wet nasal mucus and keep the defenses operating.

  • 0

    Ah_so

    That figure is just out of 100 to make it easier to understand.

    Saves time - instead of having to work about what that pesky "%" symbol is all about. I mean, what is a "percent" anyway?

  • 0

    Open Minded

    Sanitizers maniacs!!!!

    I and family wash our hands only twice a day maximum. No gargling, no masks and no hands sanitizers. But vaccinations for serious and contagious diseases!

    In ten years, no flu, minimal missing days at school or work (avg. 1/year/person) and happy life.

  • 2

    bicultural

    Nzguy, there is no way to come up with 26.4% dividing any number with another from 1 to 24.

  • 0

    Lowly

    Isn't this a no-brainer? So... Washing your hands (and the rest of you body) is going to keep you clean and less likely to get various diseases and infections, but... gargling (ie washing an internal part of your body) we can't be sure about?

    I was a little skeptic

    Classic!

  • -1

    JTDanMan

    My wife does this. Convinced that it helps. She doesn't get many colds.

    I think it is because of central heating...

  • 0

    Fadamor

    with a rate of 26.4 infected per 100 individuals.

    What's another way of saying "per 100"? How about "percent"? While I agree that the validity of this study is meaningless because they didn't provide the total number of study participants, I CAN say that there were at least 500 individuals in the study. (As you cannot have a fraction of a person get sick, you have to multiply 26.4 by factors of five in order to get the decimal place to zero out and result in an integer number of people). So, the lowest numbers would be 132 people out of 500 who became sick.

  • -4

    JeffLee

    Westerners used to gargle for colds/flu over 100 years ago. But when medical research found it didn't do anything, they stopped. The Japanese, however, just kept on doing it. It has taken recent Japanese research to have an effect, since the Japanese ignore or distrust research findings done by foreigners.

    This is similar to the second-hand smoke research. The West responded to the international findings by banning smoking in indoor public places, whilst the Japanese haven't.

  • 0

    FightingViking

    @rickyvee

    . whatever floats your boat, i guess. but i think a lot of it is psychological. you think something is going to help you so it does.

    No wonder I haven't had a cold in years ! (Ever since I decided "Mai-tai" was my favourite "antiseptic"...)

  • 0

    Tom_Mix

    Cold/flu viruses do not like overly wet environments. Plain water on facet handles and the hands can stop them. So why wouldn't gargling with water help?

    A particularly human characteristic is that the front part of our throats in shaped in a way that liquids tend to bypass without touching directly. That part of the throat gets dry easily and cold and flu viruses, not liking overly wet environments, can collect and take root there relatively easily. The essential part of gargling is that it wets that part of the throat whereas just drinking water doesn't.

    But, for it to be effective, you do have to do it a lot. Us people who are alive breathe constantly and that dries the throat up pretty quickly. Also, I don't think its necessary to make a big show of gargling, like doing it for two minutes straight, make a hell of a lot of noise and spit. You can gargle silently, for just a few seconds and then just drink the damned water. The trick is to do it many many times a day. And that will also help keep your body hydrated which is also vital for avoid colds and flu.

    I also think its a bad idea to wash the hands too much with soap and water. Just water is hard to over-do, but soap removes your skin oils and those also help to eliminate cold and flu viruses. Men, being naturally more oily than women, tend to get colds and flu less often. I only wash my hands with soap and water about three or four times a day, and I don't go nuts either. I don't try to scrub down into the skin, I just rinse off the surface.

  • 0

    Fox Cloud Lelean

    Well, apparently the back of the throat is where the cold virus latches on, so I guess I can see the reasoning. But, I would think a shot of whiskey would be just as effective really. After all, alcohol is used as a sterilizing substance (technically ethanol, but strong alcohol like whiskey can be used to clean wounds when antiseptic is not available). Personally, I think it's good enough to just carry around some antibacterial handwash and stick with that. If you're really worried about a cold, there are nasal sprays to tackle colds before they take hold. But, it's only a cold at the end of the day, so just suck it up. I dunno. Maybe just gargle some whiskey when you get home from work. Whether you swallow said whiskey is up to you, and whether or not you're working the next day as well.

  • 0

    budgie

    There's another one - they think that cold drinks give you diarrhea and you have to wrap your stomach up to keep it warm. I had an office colleague once tell me I shouldn't take the medicine prescribed by one doctor (painkillers) because it might clash with the medicine prescribed by another doctor (stomach troubles). It all came from the same pharmacy. Add in the facemasks, heat patches that fall straight off your skin and other junk they sell at the pharmacy because it's white and looks 'medical'. To old ladies, medicine is magic, not science.

  • -7

    Tessa

    No wonder I haven't had a cold in years ! (Ever since I decided "Mai-tai" was my favourite "antiseptic"...)

    :) My former boss swore by hot whiskey and lemon juice. I asked him if it cured the cold, he said "no but it makes me feel better for having it!"

  • 0

    Bronwyn Schmidt Celebrant

    I think anything you can do to lessen the flu or cold is good. Have flu shots, gargle with what ever, please wash your hands, that's a no brainer and use sanitary hand cleaners.

  • 0

    Tom_Mix

    But, I would think a shot of whiskey would be just as effective really.

    In the very short run yes, and I mean minutes. But what you have done is weaken the flesh and antibodies in your throat and consumed a beverage that causes your body to lose water. And so in the long run (hours) you have only made your situation worse, and the only way to mitigate what you have done is to consume a lot more water.

  • 0

    FightingViking

    @Tessa

    Maybe yu don't know what a "Mai-tai" is ? It's got PLENTY of vitamin C...

  • 2

    Carcharodon

    For cold and flu? no idea, what I gargle for is to prevent sore throats - and you know what? In a n=1 experiment, there has been a massive decrease in the number of throat infections I get. I used to be very susceptible to severe sore throats - 2-3-4 times a year my entire life. Difflam, strepsils, iodine sprays were my best friends. the problem was always localized to the throat. I started gargle daily about 6 years ago and I have had one sore throat that required medication since that time. For me that is more than enough proof. Gargling prevents sore throats for me, I will continue to do it. As for cold and flu and gargling, that I can't comment. I honestly cant remember the last cold I had and the flu - had that once in my life 25 years ago., well before I started a gargling routine. Other foreigners are sometimes sanctimonious and quite disparaging of gargling, it's a shame.

  • -3

    Tessa

    Maybe yu don't know what a "Mai-tai" is ? It's got PLENTY of vitamin C...

    Oh, I know Mai Tai! I once had a Mai Tai at that bar at the top of the New Otani, cost 2,500 yen! Everytime I bump into the guy who bought it for me, he reminds me of it ...

  • 0

    James Dean Jnr.

    The Japanese government released a press release a few years back saying gargling does nothing.

    And you really believe everything the Government says?

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