A sore throat can make it painful to eat and even talk. The throat could also feel scratchy and irritated, which can worsen when swallowing.
Common causes include a viral infection, such as a cold or the flu, and bacteria. Most sore throats are not serious, but severe symptoms can make breathing difficult.
How a person deals with a sore throat depends on the severity and the cause. Usually, home remedies can soothe the discomfort until it goes away. However, sometimes it needs medical treatment.
Find out more about the causes and symptoms and how to deal with them.
A sore throat can be a sign of COVID-19. Check here for other symptoms and to find out what to do if you believe you have COVID-19.
Viruses and bacteria are two common causes of sore throats.
Many sore throats are due to viral infections, such as:
- common colds
- the Epstein Barr virus (EBV) may lead to infectious mononucleosis, which is sometimes known as glandular fever or mono
If symptoms are severe, the person should speak with a doctor. However, a healthcare professional will not prescribe antibiotics for a virus.
Strep throat is a common type of throat infection due to exposure to a strain of Streptococcus bacterium.
- a sore throat that develops suddenly
- pain when swallowing
- a fever
- white patches on the throat
- red or swollen tonsils
- red spots on the roof of the mouth
- swollen or tender lymph nodes in the neck area
The person may need antibiotics to fight the infection and prevent complications. Without treatment, strep throat can increase the risk of rheumatic fever or kidney inflammation in children.
Strep throat accounts for 20–30% of sore throats in children and around 10% in adults, according to the
Other common causes of a sore throat include:
- irritation due to dry heat, pollutants, or chemicals
- reflux, when stomach acids come up into the back of the throat
- cold air
More severe but less common conditions that can involve a sore throat include:
- HIV infection
- tumors of the throat, tongue, or larynx
Epiglottitis is a rare but potentially dangerous throat infection where inflammation and swelling of the epiglottis can close the airway, making it difficult to breathe. It is a medical emergency.
Anyone with ongoing or severe symptoms should consult a doctor, as they may have an underlying condition that needs further treatment.
The symptoms of a sore throat can vary depending on the exact cause.
Common signs and symptoms
- a scratchy sensation in the throat
- pain in the throat area that becomes worse when swallowing or talking
- difficulty swallowing
- sore or swollen lymph nodes in the neck or jaw area
- swollen red tonsils
- a hoarse or muffled voice
- coughing, sneezing, and a runny nose
- a fever
Sore throats can affect any age group, but they are most common among children aged
Strep throat is more common in children than in adults. The exact symptoms depend on the age, but, as well as a sore throat, they may include:
- a fever
- tender, swollen lymph nodes in the neck
- an irritated mood
- a reduced appetite
- swollen tonsils with signs of pus
- small red spots on the roof of the mouth
- a headache
- abdominal pain, nausea, and vomiting, especially in children
People with strep throat often have pain and fever without a cough.
Before the age of 3 years, strep throat is uncommon.
A doctor may prescribe antibiotics for strep throat to prevent future complications.
Viral infections are the most frequent cause of sore throat in children. And while these infections will not respond to antibiotics, a doctor may prescribe treatment to relieve the discomfort.
The symptoms of epiglottitis include:
- a severely sore throat
- difficulty swallowing and breathing
- a high pitched sound when breathing in
- skin that looks blue, or gray in darker skin, due to a lack of oxygen
If a child has these symptoms, they need immediate medical attention.
In the past, epiglottitis was common, but since routine Haemophilus influenza type b vaccinations began in 1985, its yearly incidence in children has fallen by 99% to fewer than 1 in every 100,000 children.
Bacterial and viral infections are also common in adults. The symptoms and treatment are similar to those for children.
Epiglottitis causes the same symptoms in adults as in children and requires needs emergency medical attention. Thie condition is rare, but the annual incidence in adults has risen since 1986 from one in every 100,000 people to around 2–3 adults every 100,000.
Most sore throats go away on their own within 5–10 days, and home treatment is usually sufficient.
Sometimes, however, medical treatment is necessary.
The American Academy of Otolaryngology, Head, and Neck Surgery suggests that a person should consult a doctor if they have:
- a severe and persistent sore throat that does not go away
- difficulty breathing, swallowing, or opening the mouth
- swelling in the face or neck
- a fever of 101°F (38.3°C) or above
- blood in the saliva or mucus
- a lump in the neck
- hoarseness that lasts over 2 weeks
- a rash
Taking a swab
If a doctor suspects a sore throat is bacterial, they may take a throat swab for testing to determine if a strep infection is present.
The healthcare professional can
They may do this for teenagers and children, as they have a higher risk of developing rheumatic fever after a strep throat infection, but adults are unlikely to develop this.
If the strep test is positive, a person may need prescription antibiotics.
If a doctor suspects EBV, they can recommend a blood test to confirm the condition.
Find out more in our dedicated article.
Sometimes, a sore throat can develop for another reason, such as a tumor. If the problem does not go away, the doctor will perform more tests to find the cause.
Most sore throats resolve without treatment after around
If a sore throat is due to a bacterial infection, a doctor may prescribe a course of antibiotics. People should always take the complete course, even if they feel better before finishing all the medication.
Sore throats due to a viral infection do not usually need medical treatment. Acetaminophen or mild pain relievers may help with the pain and fever, and children can use pediatric versions of these medications. A pharmacist can advise which ones to use and correct dosages.
It is important always to follow the instructions on any medication and not to take more than the guidelines suggest.
A person with epiglottitis may need to spend time in the hospital. In severe cases, they may need intubation to help them breathe.
If tests reveal a tumor or another cause, the doctor will discuss appropriate treatment options with the individual.
A few home care strategies
- getting plenty of rest
- drinking plenty of fluids to keep the throat moist and prevent dehydration
- using a humidifier or vaporizer
- having cold treats, such as popsicles
- gargling with warm, saltwater
- lozenges or hard candy to soothe a sore throat and a cough for children over 2 years and adults
- using honey to soothe a sore throat, except for children under 12 months
rinsing the noseand sinuses, for example, with a neti pot
- taking vitamin C supplements if a person is under severe stress, although there is not enough evidence indicating this is beneficial for most people
Additionally, honey is not safe for children aged under 1 year due to the risk of botulism, a type of food poisoning.
People should also avoid using tap water with neti pots, as there is a risk of infection. Ask a pharmacist which type of water to use.
Soothing drinks for a sore throat
Consuming warm liquids can help ease the discomfort from a sore throat.
Drinks that people may consume include:
- warm lemon or water with honey — remember not to give honey to infants under 12 months of age
- ginger tea
- green tea
Some other home remedies may be useful, but they may not be safe for everyone.
- American ginseng
- vitamin D
However, there is insufficient evidence to show that these are helpful.
However, more evidence is necessary to show that it is effective and safe in the long term. It can also have some adverse effects, including nausea and a bad taste in the mouth.
However, the NCCIH advises people not to use zinc lozenges for more than 2 weeks. Individuals should also avoid nasal zinc products, as these may lead to a permanent and severe loss of smell.
Zinc may also interact with antibiotics, penicillamine, and other drugs.
Always check with a doctor or health professional before taking any alternative remedies to make sure they are safe to use and will not interact with another medication.
Some simple steps can help prevent infections that cause a sore throat.
- Wash the hands often, including after sneezing and coughing.
- Use alcohol-based hand sanitizers if soap and water are unavailable.
- Cough or sneeze into a tissue, throw it away, and immediately wash both hands.
- Avoid touching the nose or mouth.
- Avoid close contact with people who have an infection and stay away from others if you have an infection.
- Disinfect frequently touched surfaces, such as tabletops.
- Follow a diet and exercise plan that helps boost overall health.
- Seek advice on COVID-19 testing if symptoms may indicate a SARS-CoV-2 infection.
A sore throat can be uncomfortable, but most are not serious and usually go away without treatment. Home remedies and over-the-counter medication can soothe the symptoms.
However, a person should speak with a doctor if symptoms are severe or persistent or they have difficulty breathing. If it is due to a bacterial infection, such as strep throat, the doctor will prescribe antibiotics.