Sore throat means that your throat hurts, is irritated or scratchy. It may be worse when you swallow. There are many causes of sore throats.
Many things can cause sore throat. Viruses (such as those that cause colds and mononucleosis) can lead to a sore throat. Bacteria (such as those that cause strep throat) can also cause a sore throat, as can smoking, breathing polluted air and allergies to pet dander, pollens and molds.
Tonsillitis is when the tonsils (at the back of your mouth on each side of your throat) become infected by bacteria or a virus. It causes the tonsils to swell and can cause a sore throat and other symptoms. Signs of strep throat and tonsillitis are often alike
Strep throat is caused by a type of bacteria called streptococcus. The pain of strep throat often feels much like sore throats caused by other bacteria or by viruses. What's important and different about strep throat is that if it isn't treated it can sometimes result in kidney inflammation or rheumatic fever. Rheumatic fever can lead to a rash, inflamed joints and, in severe cases, damage to the valves of the heart.
Mononucleosis (mono) is a viral infection caused by the Epstein-Barr virus. One of the main signs of mono is a sore throat that may last for 1 to 4 weeks. Other symptoms include swollen glands in your neck and armpits, fever, headache and feeling tired.
Your doctor may do a rapid strep test, a throat culture or both. A rapid strep test will give results fast--usually within about 15 minutes. But the test won't tell if your sore throat is caused by a bacterium other than Streptococcus or if it's caused by a virus. A throat culture takes longer--between 24 and 48 hours--but it's more accurate. If your doctor thinks you may have mono, he or she will probably do a blood test.
If your sore throat is caused by bacteria, your family doctor will probably prescribe an antibiotic. You will most likely begin to feel better in a few days, but it is very important to take all the antibiotics your doctor prescribes. This reduces the risk that your sore throat will return and also helps prevent antibiotic resistance.
Antibiotics don't work against viruses. Infections caused by viruses usually just have to run their course. Most symptoms caused by a cold-type virus go away in a week to 10 days.
Symptoms caused by mono can last for 4 weeks or more. If you have mono, your doctor will probably suggest that you get plenty of rest and that you not exercise too hard. You can take acetaminophen (one brand name: Tylenol), ibuprofen (some brand names: Advil, Motrin, Nuprin) or naproxen (one brand name: Aleve) for the sore throat, headache and fever. Children should not take aspirin. Aspirin can cause a serious illness called Reye's syndrome when it is given to children younger than 18 years of age.
If a sore throat is a symptom of hay fever or another allergy, your doctor can help you figure out how to avoid the things that trigger your allergies. You may also need to take medicine for your allergies.
Tonsillectomy is a surgery that removes the tonsils. Most people who have tonsillitis don't need a tonsillectomy. You might need a tonsillectomy if you get severe tonsillitis often or if your tonsils are too large and cause problems with your breathing. Your doctor can tell you if a tonsillectomy is needed.
The best ways to avoid catching or passing the viruses and bacteria that can lead to a sore throat are to wash your hands regularly, avoid touching your eyes or mouth and cover your mouth when coughing or sneezing.
Written by familydoctor.org editorial staff