A sore throat may feel scratchy or dry, and it can make swallowing painful. Sore throats are usually a symptom of a viral infection. However, they are sometimes due to bacterial infections, allergies, or irritants.
Although unpleasant, a sore throat is rarely a cause for concern. In most cases, it will disappear within a week. In the meantime, people can use various treatments and remedies to help alleviate the pain.
In this article, we outline common causes of sore throats, their associated symptoms, and how long they last. We also provide advice on when to see a doctor.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the most common cause of a sore throat is a viral infection. Some viruses and viral diseases that may cause a sore throat include:
1. Cold and flu viruses
Cold and flu viruses are common causes of a sore throat. Other symptoms of cold and flu may include:
- a cough
- a runny or stuffy nose
- a headache
- body aches and pains
Influenza viruses may also cause fever and diarrhea.
2. Infectious mononucleosis
Infectious mononucleosis, or “mono,” is the medical term for a group of symptoms that typically result from infection with the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV). People may refer to mono as glandular fever or kissing disease.
Mono is most common among teenagers and young adults.
The symptoms of mono usually appear gradually, about 4–6 weeks after a person becomes infected with EBV. Symptoms may include:
- a sore throat
- swollen lymph nodes in the neck and armpits
- a headache
- body aches
- swollen spleen or liver
Most people who have mono feel better within 2–4 weeks. However, some people may feel exhausted for several weeks more, and the symptoms may occasionally last for months.
The CDC list a sore throat as a potential symptom of COVID-19. Other possible symptoms include:
- a cough
- shortness of breath
- stuffy or runny nose
- a new loss of taste or smell
- a headache
- body aches
- fever or chills
- nausea or vomiting
Anyone who experiences any of the following symptoms should seek emergency medical attention:
- persistent pain or pressure in the chest
- difficulty breathing
- blue discoloration of the lips or face
- new confusion
- difficulty waking or staying awake
4. Hand, foot, and mouth disease
Enteroviruses are a family of viruses that are responsible for hand, foot, and mouth disease (HFMD). In the United States, the most common cause of HFMD is infection with an enterovirus called coxsackievirus A16.
- a sore throat
- mouth sores
- a rash on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet, which typically consists of flat spots, occasionally with blisters
HFMD usually clears up within 7–10 days.
Some bacterial causes of sore throats include:
1. Strep throat
Strep throat is a bacterial infection of the throat and tonsils. The bacterial species Streptococcus pyogenes, also known as group A streptococcus, causes strep throat.
Strep throat is especially common in children between the ages of 5 and 15 years.
The symptoms of strep throat can include:
- a sore throat that develops quickly
- small, red spots on the roof of the mouth
- pain when swallowing
- tonsils that are red and swollen, sometimes with white spots or streaks of pus
- swollen lymph nodes at the front of the neck
- a scarlet fever rash
Children sometimes experience additional symptoms, such as:
- a headache
Adults and children with symptoms of strep throat should see a doctor. Untreated group A strep infections can lead to complications, such as rheumatic fever, and antibiotics may be necessary to prevent such complications.
A person should begin feeling better within a couple of days of starting antibiotic treatment.
2. Whooping cough
Whooping cough is a bacterial infection of the lungs and airways. The bacterium Bordetella pertussis causes whooping cough.
Whooping cough can cause a sore throat. However, the main symptom is a violent and uncontrollable cough that makes it difficult for a person to breathe. A person who has recently experienced a coughing fit may make a characteristic “whooping” sound when trying to catch their breath.
A person who has whooping cough may experience coughing fits for up to 10 weeks or more.
Whooping cough can affect people of all ages, but it can be very serious in babies below 1 year of age. Early treatment is important for preventing complications.
Sometimes, a sore throat is not due to an infection. Other possible causes include:
Smoking or exposure to secondhand smoke can lead to a sore throat. The best ways to avoid this symptom are to refrain from smoking and not be around other people while they smoke.
2. Allergies and irritation
Some people have allergic reactions to pollen, dust, mites, and other substances. These substances can irritate the throat and make it sore.
Other possible symptoms of an allergy include:
Simple home remedies are often effective in treating sore throats, especially those resulting from a cold or the flu. In some cases, though, a person may require prescription medications from their doctor.
Some tips for relieving a sore throat include:
- drinking plenty of fluids
- eating cool or soft foods
- sucking on ice lollies or throat lozenges
- dissolving one-quarter of a teaspoon of salt in half a cup of water and gargling with the mixture
- adding honey to a hot drink (for adults and children over 1 year of age only)
- taking over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers, such as acetaminophen, ibuprofen, or, for adults only, aspirin
- using a humidifier or vaporizer, especially when sleeping
A doctor may prescribe antibiotics for strep throat, whooping cough, and other bacterial throat infections.
A viral infection can lower the body’s resistance to bacterial infections. As such, doctors may sometimes prescribe antibiotics to help prevent secondary bacterial infections. However, the antibiotics will not treat the virus itself.
Antihistamines and other OTC and prescription medications can help prevent or control allergies that cause sore throats.
There is no specific treatment for mono. However, a person may be able to speed up their recovery by resting, sleeping, and drinking plenty of fluids.
A person should see a doctor if their sore throat lasts more than a week, or if they experience any of the following symptoms:
- a recurrent sore throat
- difficulty swallowing or opening the mouth
- swelling of the face or neck
- swollen lymph glands in the neck or jaw
- blood in the phlegm or saliva
- drooling (in young children)
- a rash
- aching or swollen joints
Anyone who experiences breathing difficulties should seek emergency medical attention.
If a pregnant woman thinks that she may have had any exposure to HFMD, she should contact her doctor.
People who suspect that they or their child may have strep throat or whooping cough should contact their doctor. Early treatment with antibiotics can help prevent complications.
Most sore throats are due to cold and flu viruses. People can often treat the symptoms of these infections at home using home remedies and over-the-counter medications.
Although it is less common, bacterial infections can also cause a sore throat. In some cases, a person may require antibiotics to speed their recovery and help prevent complications.
A person should see a doctor if they or their child experiences a persistent or recurrent sore throat or other worrying symptoms. Some causes of sore throats require prompt medical attention.