What is a sore throat?
A sore throat is a painful, dry, or scratchy feeling in the throat.
Pain in the throat is one of the most common symptoms. It accounts for more than 13 million visits to doctor’s offices each year (1).
Most sore throats are caused by infections, or by environmental factors like dry air. Although a sore throat can be uncomfortable, it’ll usually go away on its own.
Sore throats are divided into types, based on the part of the throat they affect:
- Pharyngitis affects the area right behind the mouth.
- Tonsillitis is swelling and redness of the tonsils, the soft tissue in the back of the mouth.
- Laryngitis is swelling and redness of the voice box, or larynx.
Sore throat symptoms
The symptoms of a sore throat can vary depending on what caused it. A sore throat can feel:
It may hurt more when you swallow or talk. Your throat or tonsils might also look red.
Sometimes, white patches or areas of pus will form on the tonsils. These white patches are more common in strep throat than in a sore throat caused by a virus.
Along with the sore throat, you can have symptoms like:
- nasal congestion
- runny nose
- swollen glands in the neck
- hoarse voice
- body aches
- trouble swallowing
- appetite loss
8 causes of sore throats
Causes of sore throats range from infections to injuries. Here are eight of the most common sore throat causes.
1. Colds, the flu, and other viral infections
Viruses cause about 90 percent of sore throats (2). Among the viruses that cause sore throats are:
- the common cold
- influenza — the flu
- mononucleosis, an infectious disease that’s transmitted through saliva
- measles, an illness that causes a rash and fever
- chickenpox, an infection that causes a fever and an itchy, bumpy rash
- mumps, an infection that causes swelling of the salivary glands in the neck
2. Strep throat and other bacterial infections
Bacterial infections can also cause sore throats. The most common one is strep throat, an infection of the throat and tonsils caused by group A Streptococcus bacteria.
Strep throat causes nearly 40 percent of sore throat cases in children (3). Tonsillitis, and sexually transmitted infections like gonorrhea and chlamydia can also cause a sore throat.
When the immune system reacts to allergy triggers like pollen, grass, and pet dander, it releases chemicals that cause symptoms like nasal congestion, watery eyes, sneezing, and throat irritation.
Excess mucus in the nose can drip down the back of the throat. This is called postnasal drip and can irritate the throat.
4. Dry air
Dry air can suck moisture from the mouth and throat, and leave them feeling dry and scratchy. The air is most likely dry in the winter months when the heater is running.
5. Smoke, chemicals, and other irritants
Many different chemicals and other substances in the environment irritate the throat, including:
- cigarette and other tobacco smoke
- air pollution
- cleaning products and other chemicals
After September 11, more than 62 percent of responding firefighters reported frequent sore throats. Only 3.2 percent had had sore throats before the World Trade Center disaster (4).
Any injury, such as a hit or cut to the neck, can cause pain in the throat. Getting a piece of food stuck in your throat can also irritate it.
Repeated use strains the vocal cords and muscles in the throat. You can get a sore throat after yelling, talking loudly, or singing for a long period of time. Sore throats are a common complaint among fitness instructors and teachers, who often have to yell (4).
7. Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is a condition in which acid from the stomach backs up into the esophagus — the tube that carries food from the mouth to the stomach.
The acid burns the esophagus and throat, causing symptoms like heartburn and acid reflux — the regurgitation of acid into your throat.
A tumor of the throat, voice box, or tongue is a less common cause of a sore throat. When a sore throat is a sign of cancer, it doesn’t go away after a few days.
Home remedies for a sore throat
You can treat most sore throats at home. Get plenty of rest to give your immune system a chance to fight the infection.
To relieve the pain of a sore throat:
- Gargle with a mixture of warm water and 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of salt.
- Drink warm liquids that feel soothing to the throat, such as hot tea with honey, soup broth, or warm water with lemon. Herbal teas are especially soothing to a sore throat (5).
- Cool your throat by eating a cold treat like a popsicle or ice cream.
- Suck on a piece of hard candy or a lozenge.
- Turn on a cool mist humidifier to add moisture to the air.
- Rest your voice until your throat feels better.
Summary: Most sore throats can be treated at home. Warm liquids or frozen foods feel soothing to the throat. A humidifier can moisturize a dry throat.
When to see a doctor
Sore throats that are caused by a viral infection usually get better on their own in two to seven days (6). Yet some causes of a sore throat need to be treated.
Call your doctor if you have any of these potentially more serious symptoms:
- severe sore throat
- trouble swallowing
- trouble breathing, or pain when you breathe
- difficulty opening your mouth
- sore joints
- a fever higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius)
- painful or stiff neck
- blood in your saliva or phlegm
- a sore throat that lasts for more than a week
Summary: Most sore throats get better on their own, within a few days. Bacterial infections like strep throat need to be treated with antibiotics. See a doctor for severe symptoms like trouble swallowing or breathing, a stiff neck, or a high fever.
Finding a doctor to treat your cold
If you can't treat your cold at home, seeing a primary care doctor is your best bet. Use the doctor search tool below, powered by our partner Amino, to find the right doctor for you based on factors like their experience and your insurance. Amino can also help book your appointment for free.
How a sore throat is diagnosed
During the exam, the doctor will ask about your symptoms, and will use a light to check the back of your throat for redness, swelling, and white spots. The doctor might also feel the sides of your neck to see if you have swollen glands.
If the doctor suspects you have strep throat, you’ll get a throat culture to diagnose it. The doctor will run a swab over the back of your throat and collect a sample to test for strep throat bacteria. With a rapid strep test, the doctor will get the results within minutes.
To confirm the diagnosis, the sample will be sent out to a lab to be tested. A lab test takes one to two days, but it can definitively show that you have strep throat.
Sometimes you might need more tests to figure out the cause of your sore throat. You can see a specialist who treats diseases of the throat, called an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) doctor or otolaryngologist.
Summary: Doctors diagnose strep throat based on symptoms, an exam of the throat, and a strep test. For a sore throat without an obvious diagnosis, you might need to see a specialist who treats conditions of the ears, nose, and throat.
You can take medicines to relieve the pain of a sore throat, or to treat the underlying cause.
Over-the-counter medications that relieve throat pain include:
Don’t give aspirin to children and teenagers, as it’s been linked to a rare but serious condition called Reye’s syndrome.
You can also use one or more of these treatments, which work directly on the pain of a sore throat:
- a sore throat spray that contains a numbing antiseptic like phenol, or a cooling ingredient like menthol or eucalyptus
- throat lozenges
- cough syrup
Some herbs, including slippery elm, marshmallow root, and licorice root, are sold as sore throat remedies. There’s not much evidence these work, but an herbal tea called Throat Coat that contains all three did relieve throat pain in one study (7).
Medications that reduce stomach acid can help with a sore throat caused by GERD. These include:
- Antacids such as Tums, Rolaids, Maalox, and Mylanta to neutralize stomach acid.
- H2 blockers such as cimetidine (Tagamet HB), famotidine (Pepcid AC), and ranitidine (Zantac) to reduce stomach acid production.
- Proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) such as lansoprazole (Prevacid 24) and omeprazole (Prilosec, Zegerid OTC) to block acid production.
Low-dose corticosteroids can also help with the pain of a sore throat, without causing any serious side effects (8).
Summary: Over-the-counter pain relievers, sprays, and lozenges can relieve the pain of a sore throat. Medicines that reduce stomach acid can help with sore throats caused by GERD.
When you need antibiotics
Antibiotics treat infections caused by bacteria, like strep throat. They won’t treat viral infections.
You need to treat a strep throat with antibiotics to prevent more serious complications like pneumonia, bronchitis, and rheumatic fever. Antibiotics can reduce sore throat pain by about one day, and lower the risk of rheumatic fever by more than two-thirds (9).
Doctors usually prescribe a course of antibiotics lasting about 10 days (10). It’s important to take all of the medication in the bottle, even if you start to feel better. Stopping an antibiotic too early can leave some bacteria alive, which can make you sick again.
Summary: Antibiotics treat sore throats caused by bacteria, such as strep throat. You need to treat strep throat to prevent more serious complications. Take the entire dose of antibiotics, even if you start to feel better.
The bottom line
Viral and bacterial infections, as well as irritants and injuries, cause the majority of sore throats. Most sore throats get better in a few days without treatment.
Rest, warm liquids, saltwater gargles, and over-the-counter pain relievers can help soothe the pain of a sore throat at home.
Strep throat and other bacterial infections are treated with antibiotics. Your doctor can use a swab test to find out if you have strep.
See a doctor for more severe symptoms, like trouble breathing or swallowing, a high fever, or a stiff neck.