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A sore throat is a painful, dry, or scratchy feeling in the throat. Sore throats are divided into types — pharyngitis, tonsillitis, and laryngitis — based on the part of the throat they affect.

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A sore throat is a painful, dry, or scratchy feeling in the throat.

Pain in the throat is one of the most common symptoms, which accounts for more than 2% of all adult primary care visits each year.

Most sore throats are caused by infections, or by environmental factors like dry air. Although a sore throat can be uncomfortable, it will usually go away on its own.

Sore throats are divided into types, based on the part of the throat they affect:

  • Pharyngitis causes swelling and soreness in the throat.
  • 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.

We partnered with Ricola to find out more about sore throats and what causes them.

The symptoms of a sore throat can vary depending on what caused it. A sore throat can feel:

  • scratchy
  • burning
  • raw
  • dry
  • tender
  • irritated

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 may also have symptoms like:

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Strep throat vs. sore throat

Sore throat may be a symptom of strep throat, which is an infection caused by Streptococcus pyogenes, a type of bacteria.

In addition to a sore throat, strep throat can also cause other symptoms, including:

Unlike other conditions that can cause a sore throat, strep throat is not associated with coughing, runny nose, pink eye, or hoarseness.

Additionally, while a sore throat usually improves on its own over time, strep throat requires treatment with an antibiotic.

Sore throat vs. COVID-19

COVID-19 is a viral infection that can cause a range of symptoms, including a sore throat.

Other possible symptoms of COVID-19 include:

If you experience any of these symptoms in addition to a sore throat or have recently been exposed to COVID-19, you may want to consider getting tested.

Viral vs. bacterial sore throat

A sore throat is usually caused by viral infections, including the common cold, flu, measles, and chickenpox.

In most cases, a sore throat caused by a viral infection will improve on its own over time without any treatment.

On the other hand, a sore throat caused by a bacterial infection may require treatment with antibiotics to prevent complications.

If you experience severe symptoms or if your sore throat lasts longer than one week, talk to a doctor to determine the cause and best course of treatment for you.

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

Sore throat is usually caused by a viral infection. Among the viruses that cause sore throats are:

  • the common cold
  • influenza — the flu
  • COVID-19
  • 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 20-30% of sore throat cases in children. Tonsillitis and sexually transmitted infections like gonorrhea and chlamydia can also cause a sore throat.

3. Allergies

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:

  • any type of smoke, including tobacco smoke
  • air pollution
  • cleaning products and other chemicals
  • aerosolized sprays, such as air fresheners

Immediately after September 11, more than 90% of rescue workers reported experiencing an acute cough, with many also reporting upper airway symptoms like sore throat and nasal congestion.

6. Injury

Certain types of injury 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. For example, sore throats are a common complaint among fitness instructors and teachers, who often have to yell.

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.

Laryngopharyngeal reflux (LPR), also known as silent reflux, can also cause the acid from the stomach to flow back up into the esophagus or throat, leading to a sore throat.

8. Tumor

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.

Though anyone can get a sore throat, there are several factors that can increase your risk.

Some common risk factors include:

  • Age: Children are more susceptible to certain conditions that can cause a sore throat, including strep throat.
  • Time of year: Some types of infection are more common during certain seasons, including winter.
  • Exposure to irritants: Several irritants, such as cigarette smoke or pollution, can cause a sore throat.
  • Personal hygiene: Infrequent hand washing could increase your risk of infection.
  • Certain settings: Some settings, such as schools and daycares, can increase the spread of infections that could cause a sore throat.
  • Vocal strain: People who regularly talk loudly, yell, or sing for long periods can strain their vocal cords more easily, leading to 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 can be especially soothing to a sore throat.
  • 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.

Shop for cool mist humidifiers.

While a sore throat cannot always be avoided, there are several steps you can take to help prevent it.

Some ways you may be able to prevent a sore throat include:

  • clean your hands regularly
  • limit close contact with others who have respiratory infections, sore throats, and colds
  • if you smoke, consider quitting
  • avoid exposure to secondhand smoke as much as possible

Sore throats that are caused by a viral infection usually get better on their own within 7 days. However, some causes of a sore throat need to be treated.

Call a doctor if you have any of these potentially more serious symptoms:

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 1-2 days, but it can definitively show that you have strep throat.

A throat culture can also help assess for other types of bacterial infections, such as chlamydia or gonorrhea. Additionally, a mononucleosis spot test or mono antibody test can also be used to rule out mononucleosis.

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.

You can take medications to relieve the pain of a sore throat, or to treat the underlying cause.

Over-the-counter medications that relieve throat pain include:

  • acetaminophen (Tylenol)
  • ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin)
  • aspirin

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

Shop for throat lozenges.

Shop for cough syrup.

Some herbs, including slippery elm, marshmallow root, and licorice root, are sold as sore throat remedies. While there’s not much evidence these work, some people may find that herbal teas that contain these ingredients, such as Throat Coat, may be beneficial.

Shop for Throat Coat herbal tea.

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), and famotidine (Pepcid AC), to reduce stomach acid production.
  • Proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) such as lansoprazole (Prevacid 24) and omeprazole (Prilosec, Zegerid OTC) to block acid production.

Shop for antacids.

Low-dose corticosteroids can also help with the pain of a sore throat, without causing any serious side effects.

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 1 day, and lower the risk of rheumatic fever by more than two-thirds.

Doctors usually prescribe a course of antibiotics lasting about 10 days. It’s important to take all of the medication as prescribed, even if you start to feel better.

Stopping an antibiotic too early can leave some bacteria alive, which can make you sick again. It can also lead to antibiotic resistance, making it more challenging to treat infections using antibiotics in the future.

Is having a sore throat before a cold normal?

A sore throat is often one of the first symptoms of a cold. Other symptoms may include sneezing, congestion, runny nose, coughing, and watery eyes.

How many days should a sore throat persist?

In most cases, a sore throat should improve within 7 days. If it doesn’t improve or if you experience any other severe symptoms, you should consult a doctor to determine whether treatment is necessary.

What are the worst foods for a sore throat?

Foods that are difficult to swallow can worsen a sore throat, including dry foods or raw vegetables. Spicy foods and acidic fruits, such as lemons or limes, can also irritate your throat.

Why does my sore throat switch sides?

Many conditions can cause a sore throat on one side, including tonsillitis, laryngitis, canker sores, and tooth infections. Other conditions, like postnasal drip, can irritate the throat and may seem to switch sides, depending on which side is affected.

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. A 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.