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Sore Throat

What is a sore throat?

Highlights

  1. A sore throat can involve irritation, pain, and itchiness that can make it hard to swallow.
  2. Visit your doctor if your sore throat lasts longer than a week and if it’s accompanied by other symptoms, like a fever, rash, joint pain, or difficulty breathing.
  3. Treatments include gargling with warm salt water, throat lozenges, anti-inflammatory medicines, and other medications.

A sore throat refers to pain, itchiness, or irritation of the throat. It may cause difficulty swallowing food and liquids, and the pain may get worse when you try to swallow. Throat pain is the primary symptom of a sore throat. However, other symptoms may include:

  • a dry throat
  • swollen glands in the neck
  • white patches on the tonsils
  • hoarseness

A sore throat can affect people of all ages, but the risk of a sore throat is higher in some people. This includes:

  • children
  • people who smoke
  • people with allergies
  • people with a compromised immune system

Sharing a close space with others also increases the risk of upper respiratory infections that can initially present as a sore throat.

Pictures of sore throat

Causes of a sore throat

Several things can cause a sore throat.

Viral infection

Most sore throats are triggered by a viral infection. These are infections caused by a virus, such as the common cold or the flu.

Other types of viral infections include:

  • mononucleosis, which is an infectious disease typically transmitted through saliva
  • measles, which is a contagious illness characterized by a distinct rash and fever
  • chickenpox, which is an infection that causes skin sores
  • croup, which is an infection of the larynx

Bacterial infection

A bacterial infection can also cause a sore throat. These types of infections include:

  • strep throat, which is an inflammation of the throat caused by the Streptococcus pyogenes bacteria
  • diphtheria, which causes throat inflammation
  • whooping cough, which affects the respiratory mucous membrane

Environmental factors

Not all sore throats are viral or bacterial. Several other things can cause throat pain.

  • If you’re allergic to mold, pet dander, pollen, or other irritants, exposure to these allergens can trigger postnasal drip. Postnasal drip occurs when excess mucus accumulates in the back of your throat. This accumulation can irritate your throat and cause pain or inflammation.
  • Dry air can make your throat feel raw and scratchy.
  • Smoking cigarettes or breathing in cigarette smoke can trigger persistent sore throats.
  • Yelling or too much talking can trigger throat strain.

Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)

Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) may also cause a sore throat. This is a digestive condition that occurs when stomach acid flows back into the esophagus. This condition causes an array of symptoms outside of a sore throat, such as:

  • hoarseness
  • heartburn
  • nausea

Other causes

In very rare cases, a sore throat may be a sign of HIV or throat cancer.

When to see your doctor

Most sore throats don’t require medical attention. However, see your doctor if your sore throat lasts for longer than one week. Also see your doctor if you experience any of the following: 

  • difficulty breathing
  • joint pain
  • difficulty swallowing
  • an earache
  • a rash
  • a fever over 101°F (38.3°C)
  • bloody mucus
  • a lump in the throat
  • hoarseness that lasts longer than two weeks

How is a sore throat diagnosed?

Determining the cause of your sore throat can help your doctor treat your symptoms. The doctor will perform a physical examination and look at your throat with a lighted instrument. They’ll look for signs of inflammation or white patches, which might indicate strep throat. Your doctor will also feel your neck for swollen glands and check your breathing.

Because strep throat is a common cause of sore throats, your doctor may swab the back of your throat and examine the sample for S. pyogenes. They may also run a blood test to determine whether you have a viral or bacterial infection.

If your doctor is unable to diagnose your sore throat, they’ll refer you to an allergist or an ear, nose, and throat specialist. These specialists can determine whether an allergen or a throat disorder is the cause of your sore throat. 

Note that it can be difficult to diagnose a sore throat in infants and toddlers. In this age group, refusal to eat is a common sign of throat irritation.

How is a sore throat treated?

The treatment for a sore throat depends on the cause. However, you can treat many sore throats at home. Home treatment options include:

  • gargling with warm salt water
  • drinking plenty of warm fluids, such as tea, soup, and water
  • avoiding allergens and irritants, such as smoke and chemicals
  • taking throat lozenges
  • reducing inflammation with ibuprofen (Advil)
  • using medications such as acetaminophen (Tylenol)

Learn more: Help for sore throats »

If a bacterial infection is causing your sore throat, your doctor will prescribe a course of antibiotics to kill the infectious organisms. You should take your medication for the full course prescribed by your doctor, even if your symptoms resolve, to treat the bacterial infection. A sore throat may come back if you stop treatment early.

If you have a viral infection, your doctor may want to let the virus run its course. During that time, they may prescribe medications, such as decongestants and pain relievers, to ease your symptoms. In some cases, your doctor may want to try an antiviral drug to fight the virus.

How to prevent a sore throat

Many underlying causes of sore throats are infectious, and there are certain steps that can help you prevent future infection. Repeatedly washing your hands throughout the day kills the germs and bacteria that can cause viral and bacterial infections. Additional steps you can take to prevent a sore throat include the following:

  • not sharing drinking glasses or utensils
  • using hand sanitizers whenever soap and water aren’t available
  • limiting contact with commonly touched surfaces
  • reducing exposure to allergens, such as pollen, dust, and mold
  • avoiding cigarette smoke
  • keeping a humidifier in your house to eliminate dryness

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