What causes a sore throat?

A sore throat causes pain, scratchiness or irritation of the throat that often worsens when you swallow. There are many causes of a sore throat. The most common cause is a viral infection, such as the common cold or the flu. A sore throat caused by a virus will usually go away on its own after a few days without antibiotics.

Less commonly, sore throats may be caused by bacterial infections such as strep throat or a peritonsillar abscess. Allergies, especially post-nasal drip, and dry air can also cause a sore throat. Smoking and air pollutants can also irritate your throat.

Symptoms

Symptoms of a sore throat include:

  • Pain or a scratchy sensation in the throat
  • Pain that worsens with swallowing or talking
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Sore, swollen glands in your neck or jaw
  • Swollen, red tonsils
  • White patches or pus on your tonsils
  • A hoarse or muffled voice

Infections causing a sore throat might result in other signs and symptoms, including:

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Runny nose
  • Sneezing
  • Body aches
  • Headache
  • Nausea or vomiting

You should see your doctor if you have:

  • Fever higher than 101 F (38.3 C)
  • Blood in your saliva or phlegm
  • Frequently recurring sore throats
  • A lump in your neck
  • Difficulty breathing or swallowing
  • Hoarseness lasting more than two weeks
  • Swelling in your neck or face

Diagnosis

Your doctor will likely start with a physical exam. They may use a light to look at the back of your throat, and likely the ears and nasal passages as well. They may gently feel the neck to check for swollen glands (lymph nodes) and listen to your breathing with a stethoscope. Your doctor might swab the back of your throat or inside of your nose to test for any infections. The results from some swab tests can come back within a few minutes, but others, including cultures to see if any bacteria grow, may take a few days.

Treatment

There are several ways to treat a sore throat:

  • Pain relievers
  • Cough drops
  • Cough syrup
  • Soothing sprays for the back of the throat
  • Using a humidifier
  • Warm liquids, such tea with honey
  • Cold liquids and ice
  • Plenty of rest
  • Gargling with salt water

If your sore throat is caused by a bacterial infection, your doctor may need to give you antibiotics. It is highly recommended that you finish the entire prescription of antibiotics even if you feel better after a couple of days. See your doctor if your symptoms get worse or you develop new symptoms.

FAQs

When should I see my doctor?

Most sore throats go away on their own, but you should see your doctor if you have a sore throat that is severe, lasts longer than a week, accompanied by joint pain, causes an earache or a fever higher than 101 F. Get medical advice straight away if you have difficulty swallowing, trouble breathing, difficulty opening your mouth, blood in your saliva or phlegm, or swelling in your neck or face.

How long does a sore throat last?

Most sore throats are the result of common viruses and resolve on their own within 3 to 10 days. Sore throats caused by a bacterial infection or allergies may last longer. See your doctor if your sore throat lasts longer than two weeks.

Can COVID-19 cause sore throat?

Some people infected with the virus have no symptoms, but symptomatic patients may have fever, body ache, cough, shortness of breath, fatigue, confusion, chills, headache, sore throat, loss of appetite, and loss of smell. Since some symptoms overlap with those for COVID-19, it is sometimes impossible to tell if a person has COVID-19 or just a sore throat without further evaluation by a doctor. You may need to isolate for 10 days or more after your symptoms start to avoid the risk of spreading COVID-19.

How do I get rid of a sore throat quickly?

Cough drops or lozenges can also help with sore throat pain - as can over-the-counter pain relievers, such as ibuprofen, tylenol, or naproxen. Chicken soup or broth, warm tea with honey, popsicles, ice cubes and ice water can soothe a sore throat quickly. Some people find gargling with saltwater can bring relief. Get plenty of rest and your sore throat should get better on its own.

What do you feel if you have a sore throat?

Symptoms of a sore throat usually include pain or irritation in your throat that's often worse when you swallow. Your throat may feel scratchy and you may also have a hoarse voice. A sore throat may be accompanied by sniffles, drainage down the back of your throat, a cough and feeling weak and feverish.

Do I need antibiotics for a sore throat?

In most cases, antibiotics won't help a sore throat, but over-the-counter medications and home remedies such as saltwater gargles or warm tea with honey can help a sore throat. See your doctor if you have white spots or pus in the back of your throat, high fevers, swollen or painful glands in your neck, or your symptoms last longer than two weeks. Only bacterial infections, like strep throat or a peritonsillar abscess, will be helped by antibiotics.

How do I know if I have strep throat or just a sore throat?

The signs and symptoms of strep throat are very similar to an ordinary sore throat, but in general strep throat has white patches on the tonsils or pus in the back of the throat. Strep throat usually doesn’t cause a cough. If you have swollen, painful lymph nodes in the neck and a fever, that could suggest strep throat.

Does apple cider vinegar help a sore throat?

A popular sore throat remedy is to drink some apple cider vinegar. While this option might not taste the best, consuming apple cider vinegar diluted in water might relieve some mild cold symptoms. Many people swear but apple cider vinegar for cold symptoms but there isn’t definitive scientific evidence to prove it really helps.

How can you test for strep throat at home?

Home strep tests come with a sterile cotton swab, which you'll gently brush against the back of your throat for a second or two. These tests typically come with two substances called reagents. You'll mix these together and add the cotton swab to get your results.

Can you have a sore throat on just one side?

You can have inflammation of one side of the throat or one tonsil. The tonsils are located at the back of the throat on each side, and a virus or bacteria usually causes the infection and inflammation. An infection in just one tonsil, or just one side of the throat, can cause pain on just one side. It may also cause a fever, trouble swallowing, and swollen lymph nodes in one side of the neck. If your symptoms get worse or you develop more symptoms then arrange an appointment with your doctor immediately.