Health & Fitness

You wake up at 3:AM with your throat feeling like you swallowed a hot coal. You open your mouth to redirect the blowtorch from that dry hot spot, but within a few minutes your throat flares up again. You can't comprehend how a throat that felt fine when you went to bed can burn so intensely just a few hours later.

Your throat will feel better, probably even fine, once you get up and get on with your day. When you're awake you're constantly swallowing and alternately breathing through mouth and nose, so it gets more soothing moisture and doesn't have that stream of dry air hitting the same spot incessantly.

Right now you just want to kill the pain and get some sleep, so you gargle with hot salt water for some temporary relief and go back to bed. But in an hour your throat is red hot again. This often lasts several nights, then may turn into a full-blown, barbed-wire, round-the-clock fiery throat that lasts for days. Most subside spontaneously in several days, but some ultimately get medically, even life, threatening. Some doctors advise getting any bad sore throat swabbed to test for streptococci bacteria, because "strep" throat can get both serious and chronic.

But many of these bonfires can be extinguished in two minutes, for hours or for the season, by one or both of two methods. That humidifier you bought to prevent your annual bronchitis (our February topic) probably averts many of them. It surely made your throat feel better on dry winter nights. But if an occasional throat fire lights up despite the humidifier, a simple, over-the-counter lozenge will often quench the battery acid in your throat in minutes, soothe it most of the night, and stop the cycle before it flares into an all-day five-alarm conflagration.

When that hot spot awakens you, reach out and make sure your new bedside humidifier is pumping moist air. If that doesn't prevent or put out the fire, reach for your bedside bottle of zinc lozenges. Suck on one without chewing it. Long before it's dissolved completely, your throat may feel much better, even if only because it's now moist. The zinc in the lozenge usually helps it feel much better for many hours, for many people. It often even stops the sore throat dead in its tracks until another one comes along. (They're usually viral, sometimes bacterial in origin, but that hot, dry air impingement spot seems to encourage their genesis.)

But there's a catch to using zinc lozenges. Many of them taste so bad you prefer the alternative -- the flaming nighttime throat, the ensuing four-day bonfire, getting fired for missing work, and your subsequent lingering painful death -- to the metallic, astringent, sour, gagging, nearly emetic taste of the lozenge.

There's also a solution or two to the taste problem. The Twinlab brand (the dark brown bottle with the stark white label, common in upscale drugstores and health food stores) of zinc lozenges tastes much better than most brands, and the "Your Life" brand of cherry-flavored zinc lozenges (probably from WalMart) tastes like candy. Pop one of those suckers, suck on it for a few minutes, get a good night's sleep, and maybe even forget the throat for weeks.

PKU (phenylketonuria) victims -- you know who you are if you're old enough to read this, because newborns are routinely tested for it -- should be aware that zinc lozenges contain phenylalanene. The other 99.994% of us need not worry about it.

Don't take zinc lozenges routinely. Several zinc supplements daily for long periods can interfere with iron and copper absorption.

Zinc helps heal wounds, but no one knows why zinc extinguishes a flaming throat, and it doesn't always work for everyone. If it's psychosomatic, please don't tell me. As long as I think the fire's out, I sleep very well, thank you. I sometimes fall back asleep before the lozenge dissolves completely, and stay asleep the rest of the night. I haven't had a sore throat for more than five minutes since discovering zinc lozenges a decade ago.

Zinc you very much.