What is a sore throat?
A sore throat means that your throat hurts. It feels irritated or scratchy. You may feel mild discomfort or a burning pain. A sore throat may feel worse when you swallow. Possible complications from a sore throat include ear and sinus infections. Another complication is an abscess (buildup of pus) near your tonsils.
Symptoms of a sore throat
Depending on the cause of your sore throat, symptoms may include:
- White spots on your throat or tonsils
- Red, swollen tonsils
- Swollen glands in your neck
- Skin rash
In some cases, additional symptoms may include:
- Abdominal pain (usually in children)
- Vomiting (usually in children)
- Joint or muscle pain
What causes a sore throat?
Most sore throats are caused by viruses, such as the cold or flu virus. Some of the more serious causes of sore throat include tonsillitis, strep throat, and mononucleosis (mono). Other causes include smoking, mouth breathing at night while you sleep, pollution, and allergies to pets, pollens and molds. General anesthesia during surgery can cause a sore throat.
How is a sore throat diagnosed?
Your doctor will do a physical exam. They will look at the back of your throat. Your doctor may swab the back of your throat. This is called a throat culture. It is done to collect a sample of bacteria. This also is used in a rapid strep test. This is a quick test to diagnose strep throat. The test won’t tell if your sore throat is caused by something other than strep. The results of a throat culture take between 24 and 48 hours. If your doctor thinks you may have mono, they will probably do a blood test.
Can a sore throat be prevented or avoided?
The best way to avoid a sore throat is to avoid getting sick. Avoid catching or spreading the viruses and bacteria that cause a sore throat. Wash your hands regularly. Avoid touching your eyes or mouth. Cover your mouth when coughing or sneezing.
Sore throat treatment
If your sore throat is cause by the flu, your doctor may prescribe antiviral medicine. Antibiotics don’t work on viruses. Most sore throats caused by a cold or flu-type virus go away in a week to 10 days.
If your sore throat is caused by bacteria, your doctor will prescribe an antibiotic. You will feel better in a few days. It is important to take all your antibiotics. This reduces the risk that your sore throat will return.
Symptoms caused by mono can last for 4 weeks or more. The treatment for mono is rest and reduced exercise.
If a sore throat is caused by allergies, your doctor may talk to you about allergy triggers. They may recommend medicine for the allergy.
If your sore throat is caused by tonsillitis, you may need an operation. This is called a tonsillectomy. The surgery removes your tonsils. Most people who have tonsillitis don’t need surgery. You might need surgery if you get severe tonsillitis often. You may need surgery if your tonsils are too big.
Living with a sore throat
Easing the pain of a sore throat is all you can do beyond treatment. There are a few ways to do this:
- Take over-the-counter pain medicine. This includes brand names such as Tylenol, Motrin, and Aleve. Do not give children younger than 18 aspirin. Aspirin may cause Reye’s syndrome. This can be fatal.
- Gargle with warm salt water. Mix 1 teaspoon of salt with 1 cup of water and stir.
- Suck on an over-the-counter throat lozenge. Hard candy works too.
- Eat a popsicle.
- Use a humidifier in your bedroom. Move it to other rooms you spend time in.
- Drink liquids to keep your throat from getting dry. Also, this helps prevent dehydration.
Questions to ask your doctor
- Will hot drinks make my sore throat worse?
- Does honey help ease the pain of a sore throat?
- Should I go to work or school if I have a sore throat?
- Can a dry room cause a sore throat?
- Can certain medicines cause a sore throat?
National Institutes of Health, MedlinePlus: Pharyngitis – sore throat
Copyright © American Academy of Family Physicians
This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.