Walk down the cold and flu aisle of any drugstore and you’ll see countless varieties of lozenges promising to soothe a sore throat, relieve a stuffy nose or quiet a cough. And it’s nothing new: The first lozenges, which were made of honey with added flavors of citrus or spice, originated in ancient Egypt around 1000 B.C. Today’s lozenges come in flavors ranging from the classic menthol, citrus and spice to honey, berry, cherry and more. But do they work? And how do you choose one? Keep reading to learn the many ways lozenges can help you.
What are lozenges?
Unlike many oral remedies, which are designed to be swallowed, lozenges are small medicinal tablets designed to dissolve slowly in your mouth to treat throat pain. You’ll find three types of lozenges: hard, soft and chewable, all formulated to provide quick relief that can last for several hours when you can’t stop coughing or your throat feels like it’s been rubbed with sandpaper or like a cobblestone road full of lumpy bumps.
What is the difference between lozenges and cough drops?
Over-the-counter cough drops and throat lozenges are very similar, making it easy to confuse the products. Both contain ingredients like menthol, eucalyptus oil or peppermint oil that numb the throat, calm a cough, temporarily relieve minor irritation and may even help clear a stuffy nose.
But products labeled as a lozenge have an edge over cough drops. That’s because lozenges also contain analgesics (medicines that relieve pain) or active ingredients like benzocaine or dextromethorphan, medications that provide temporary relief for a sore throat and suppress coughs. As a lozenge slowly dissolves in your mouth, its ingredients come in contact with the mouth and throat, providing a soothing effect.
“Although neither product can treat causes of coughs and sore throats like bacterial or viral infections, influenza or allergies, lozenges are often a quick and handy way to relieve aggravating symptoms of these, and many other common health issues,” says Sean Ormond, MD, an anesthesiologist and interventional pain management physician in Phoenix, Arizona.
What are the benefits of lozenges?
When you’re not feeling your best, lozenges can help you feel better. But the key to speedy relief is choosing the right lozenge for your worst symptom. Here, a guide to how to choose.
To ease pain: Try a lozenge with benzocaine
Lozenges that contain local anesthetics (substances that dull your sensitivity to pain) such as benzocaine can provide almost immediate relief for throat or mouth pain. They’re a handy way to extinguish the fire in your throat caused by illness, mild pain caused by postnasal drip and allergies or exposure to irritants like smoke, shares Dr. Ormond. They’re also good options to dull the pain caused by canker sores and mouth ulcers. One to try: Chloraseptic Sore Throat Lozenges (buy on Amazon)
To ward off dry mouth or to restore your voice: Go for glycerin
Sucking on a lozenge containing glycerin, an ingredient in many cough syrups, increases saliva production, keeping your throat moist and comfortable. In fact, several studies have found that lozenges can stimulate saliva production, with some lozenges increasing saliva by as much as 10 times the normal amount. That’s good news for your teeth, since saliva is needed to rinse bad bacteria away.
Gycerin lozenges can also help if you’ve had a busy day of talking or if you wake up with no voice. That’s because its lubricating properties can help soothe hoarseness or vocal strain. One to try: Grether’s Pastilles (buy on Amazon).
To quiet a cough: Look for dextromethorphan — or this sweet alternative
Nagging dry coughs that linger for days or weeks after a cold or flu or those that are caused by allergies are no match for lozenges containing dextromethorphan. “This ingredient works with your brain to suppress the cough reflex, reducing the urge to cough,” explains Dr. Ormond. One to try: Cepacol (buy on Amazon).
If you prefer a natural remedy, increasing evidence suggests lozenges containing honey can also silence coughs. Indeed, a study published in Canadian Family Physician that found honey appeared to be as effective as dextromethorphan as a cough suppressant, even for pesky coughs. One to try: Manuka Health (buy on Amazon).
To soothe a dry throat: Try a ‘slippery’ lozenge
Lozenges that contain gel-like substances such as honey, slippery elm or glycerin, can help to soothe a dry throat by forming a thin protective coating over the throat. Dr. Ormond says lozenges with these ingredients — often called demulcents — can be helpful treating the dry, rough feeling caused by conditions such as laryngitis and postnasal drip. One to try: Planetary Herbals (buy on Amazon)
To kill germs: Go for antiseptics
Lozenges that contain an antiseptic, such as menthol or thymol, can kill virus-causing germs in the throat or mouth. This can be helpful for conditions such as strep throat and tonsillitis. Lozenges formulated with antibacterials pack the added benefit of killing bacteria that can cause a sore throat. In fact, a team of scientists found the antiseptic ingredients amylmetacresol and dichlorobenzyl alcohol killed 99.9% of common sore throat-associated bacteria tested in just 10 minutes. One to try: Stepsils (buy on Amazon).
Do lozenges have side effects?
Lozenges are generally safe when used as directed, but you may have allergies or sensitivities to specific ingredients in lozenges, so it’s important to read the ingredients list before you take them. Certain ingredients may interact with other medications you’re taking and may have the rare potential to cause the blood disorder methemoglobinemia in those with a history of blood disorders or breathing problems. And the doctors we spoke to suggest following the recommended dosage and usage instructions provided by the manufacturer or your physician.
Can you take too many lozenges?
We’ve all been there: Feeling awful and popping lozenge after lozenge to ease the ache of a sore throat. Is this bad for you? That depends on the lozenge you’re taking. To be safe, Dr. Ormond advises following the recommended dosage and usage instructions provided by the manufacturer or your physician.
But there are two concerns: “Consuming excessive amounts of menthol, a popular ingredient in many lozenges, can result in an overdose, resulting in nausea and vomiting,” says Dr. Ormond. What’s more, lozenges are also formulated with as much as 3.8 grams of sugar per lozenge to mask the taste of the powerful healing ingredients — and that sugar can add up!
If sugar intake is a concern, read the label and look for sugar-free alternatives, which are widely available with the same pain-fighting ingredients. On the flipside, Dr. Ormond cautions that alternative sweeteners like xylitol can cause allergic reactions including hives, nausea and vomiting. Overdo it on sugar-free lozenges, consuming 30 to 40 grams of xylitol, and bloating or even diarrhea can result.
This content is not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. Always consult your physician before pursuing any treatment plan.