A sore throat and headache can be symptoms of several conditions, ranging from mild to serious. Common causes include a cold or allergies.

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This article will outline 12 possible causes of sore throats and headaches. It will compare the symptoms of COVID-19 with other symptoms caused by conditions such as flu and the common cold.

It will also outline treatment options, including prescription medicines, over-the-counter medications, and home remedies.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), people have reported a wide range of symptoms of COVID-19, which is an infectious disease that occurs due to severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2).

The CDC also states that symptoms can appear 2–14 days after exposure to the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

The symptoms of COVID-19 can include:

Coronavirus resources

For more advice on COVID-19 prevention and treatment, visit our coronavirus hub.

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A viral upper respiratory infection, which is a common cold, can cause headaches and a sore throat.

According to the CDC, a sore throat may last for 8 days, and a headache for 9–10 days.

Other symptoms of a common cold can include:

Find advice on how to treat the common cold here.

Flu is a respiratory illness that affects the nose, throat, and lungs. Influenza viruses cause flu, and can quickly spread between people through droplets in the air when people talk, cough, or sneeze.

Symptoms of flu usually occur suddenly and can include a sore throat and headache. Other symptoms include:

  • fever
  • cough
  • stuffy or runny nose
  • body aches
  • fatigue
  • vomiting or diarrhea, particularly in children

Learn more about flu here.

The bacterium Streptococcus pyogenes (group A strep) causes strep throat.

According to the CDC, strep throat is most common in children aged 5–15 years.

Symptoms of strep throat can include a sore throat and headache, as well as:

  • tiny red spots on the top of the mouth
  • pain when swallowing
  • fever
  • swollen tonsils, sometimes with patches of white pus
  • cough
  • runny nose

Learn more about how to recognize strep throat.

Allergies occur when the immune system treats an otherwise harmless substance as an invader. Allergies can cause symptoms that may affect the following body parts:

  • throat
  • nose
  • sinuses
  • ears
  • lungs
  • stomach lining
  • skin

People may experience a sore throat and headache, as well as:

  • runny nose
  • sneezing
  • shortness of breath
  • wheezing
  • coughing
  • rash
  • fatigue
  • nausea

Learn more about allergies here.

Pharyngitis and tonsillitis are two types of conditions where there is inflammation and pain in the throat. Viral or bacterial infections most commonly cause pharyngitis and tonsillitis.

Pharyngitis refers to inflammation of the pharynx, or throat, while tonsillitis affects the tonsils. If people have both infections, they have pharyngotonsillitis.

Both can cause a headache and sore throat, as well as:

  • fever
  • loss of appetite
  • nausea
  • stomach ache
  • painful swallowing
  • redness or inflammation in the throat

Bacterial meningitis is a serious condition, and a person will need immediate medical treatment.

A range of different bacteria can cause bacterial meningitis. Symptoms include a high fever, severe headache, and a stiff neck that occur suddenly. One of the first symptoms before having bacterial meningitis may be a sore throat or a respiratory condition in adults and children.

If a person experiences sudden fever, headache, and a stiff neck, they should seek help immediately.

Other symptoms of bacterial meningitis can include:

In newborns, symptoms can include:

  • being slow or inactive
  • irritability
  • vomiting
  • feeding poorly

Learn more about bacterial meningitis here.

Infectious mononucleosis, also called mono, is another viral infection that can cause headaches and sore throat. Mono is usually caused by Epstein-Barr virus (EBV).

Mono can include symptoms such as:

  • fever
  • extreme fatigue
  • body aches
  • swollen lymph nodes
  • rash
  • enlarged spleen or liver

Learn more about mono here.

Peritonsillar abscess is the most common deep infection affecting the head and neck. It is most prevalent among young adults.

A peritonsillar abscess commonly causes sore throat and fever. In some cases, a person may develop a headache from the condition.

Other symptoms can include:

  • earache
  • painful swallowing
  • difficulty swallowing
  • malaise
  • drooling
  • muffled voice
  • foul-smelling breath
  • trismus, also called lockjaw

Read more about peritonsillar abscesses here.

Throat cancer can develop in different areas within the throat. The location of cancer can affect the symptoms that a person experiences. Some people may experience a sore throat that does not go away and headaches.

Other symptoms can include:

  • constant coughing
  • painful swallowing
  • difficulty swallowing
  • ear pain
  • difficulty breathing
  • unintentional weight loss
  • a lump in the neck

Find out more about throat cancer here.

Lemierre’s syndrome is a rare complication of a bacterial throat infection or infections that affect other areas of the head and neck.

Lemierre’s syndrome can occur if a bacterial infection spreads into tissues or cavities within the neck, which can then cause an infected blood clot.

Treatment for bacterial infection may involve a combination of intravenous antibiotics. Doctors may also need to drain any abscesses to keep infection under control.

The early stages of HIV infection can cause flu-like symptoms, such as a sore throat and headache. People may also experience:

  • fever and chills
  • rash
  • muscle aches
  • night sweats
  • fatigue
  • swollen lymph nodes
  • mouth ulcers

If a person thinks they may have had exposure to HIV, they will need to take an HIV test that detects an early infection. If a person tests positive for HIV, treatment includes taking daily HIV medication to keep the amount of HIV in the blood very low.

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection that has four stages. Each stage has different symptoms. During the first stage, a person may have a sore around the genitals, anus, or mouth.

A person may not notice the sore as it is usually painless. With secondary syphilis, a person may have the following symptoms:

  • sore throat
  • headache
  • patchy hair loss
  • skin rash
  • swollen lymph nodes
  • fever
  • weight loss
  • muscle aches
  • fatigue

Prompt treatment is important to prevent syphilis from progressing and causing serious complications. Antibiotics can cure syphilis.

Most sore throats and headaches will get better on their own without treatment. If symptoms do not get better after a few days, a person should talk to a healthcare professional.

A doctor will sometimes do a test to determine the cause of a sore throat. If one or more bacteria are causing a sore throat, a person will need antibiotics to treat it. If a virus is causing a sore throat, antibiotics will not help.

A doctor or pharmacist can advise a person about over-the-counter (OTC) medications they could use to ease their symptoms. Always use OTC medicines as directed.

Sore throat treatment

A person can try the following remedies to make their sore throat feel better:

  • gargling with saltwater
  • sucking on popsicles or ice chips
  • drinking plenty of fluids, including warm drinks
  • using a clean humidifier or cool mist vaporizer
  • taking OTC medications such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) and ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil)
  • trying natural remedies, such as honey, ginger root tea, and cinnamon

Learn more about natural remedies for a sore throat here.

Headache treatment

A person can try the following remedies to treat a headache:

  • applying a cold compress to the head
  • getting plenty of sleep and rest
  • doing some gentle stretching, particularly to ease the neck and shoulders
  • drinking plenty of fluids to stay hydrated
  • taking OTC medications such as acetaminophen and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)

Treatment for children

The treatment options for children with a sore throat and headache will depend on their age and the cause of these symptoms.

A doctor or pharmacist can give advice about OTC medications. Parents and caregivers should carefully read all instructions for OTC medications and give dosages based on either weight or age.

A person should follow all directions that a doctor gives for prescription medications. A doctor will recommend therapies to help treat the underlying condition where possible.

The CDC provide the following advice about giving OTC medications to children:

  • Only acetaminophen is suitable for children under 6 months.
  • Acetaminophen or ibuprofen is suitable for children 6 months or older.
  • Avoid giving aspirin to children as it can cause Reye’s syndrome, which is a rare but serious condition.
  • Avoid giving cough or cold medicines to children under 4 years unless a doctor advises.
  • Ask a doctor for advice before giving cough or cold medicines to a child older than 4 years.

In many cases, a person cannot avoid a sore throat and headache. To help prevent infections that can cause a sore throat and headache, people can:

  • avoid close contact with individuals who have a contagious illness
  • wash their hands regularly with soap and water, or an alcohol-based hand sanitizer if soap and water are not available
  • cover the mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing or sneezing, then throw the tissue away
  • avoid touching the mouth, eyes, or nose with unwashed hands to prevent spreading germs
  • clean and disinfect surfaces that people regularly touch
  • get an annual flu jab to help prevent flu (for people aged 6 months or older)

People who suffer from allergies can try to avoid triggers, but that may not always be possible.

People will need to seek medical help straight away if they experience the following:

  • stiff neck
  • sensitivity to light
  • rash
  • difficulty breathing
  • severe allergic reaction
  • severe or worsening dehydration
  • fever lasting for longer than 4 days, or symptoms that do not improve in 10 days
  • symptoms, such as fever or cough, that improve but then come back or get worse
  • worsening of existing chronic health problems

In most cases, a sore throat and headache are likely to be a symptom of a cold or allergy. However, other illnesses, including COVID-19, can also cause headaches and sore throats.

Symptoms such as fatigue, fever, and a runny nose often occur alongside sore throat and headache. In most cases, a person can treat a sore throat and headache with OTC medications and home remedies.

If a person’s symptoms do not clear, or they develop severe symptoms, they should seek immediate medical help.