Sore throat

A sore throat, medically known as pharyngitis, manifests as discomfort and scratchiness in the throat, particularly exacerbated during swallowing. Viral infections, such as the common cold or influenza, are the predominant causes of sore throats.


A sore throat is common

Sore throats are prevalent among both adults and children, occurring when inflammation affects the throat (pharynx) and/or tonsils.

Typically, sore throats caused by viral infections, such as the common cold, resolve without medical intervention.


Strep throat is more serious

Strep throat, stemming from a bacterial infection known as streptococcus, necessitates antibiotic treatment.

Your primary care provider can accurately diagnose the cause of your sore throat and initiate appropriate treatment for recovery.


Common causes of a sore throat


Sore throats in adults

Most sore throats in adults are caused by the viruses of the common cold or flu. Other possible causes include:

  • Allergies: triggered by pet dander, molds, dust, and pollen, which frequently induce throat irritation

  • Chickenpox

  • Dry indoor air conditions

  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD): a digestive disorder wherein stomach acids reflux into the esophagus, leading to throat irritation

  • HIV infection: with symptoms resembling those of the flu, including a sore throat, often manifesting shortly after contraction

  • Irritants such as outdoor air pollution, tobacco smoke, chewing tobacco, chemicals, alcohol, and spicy foods

  • Measles

  • Mononucleosis

  • Muscle strain

  • Strep throat: resulting from Streptococcus pyogenes (group A streptococcus) bacteria

  • Tonsillitis: which may necessitate tonsil removal if they persistently cause issues

  • Tumors: including cancerous growths in the throat, tongue, or larynx (voice box), which can provoke throat discomfort

Sore throats in children

Sore throats are very common in children, and most often they are due to a common cold and get better without treatment. Other possible causes include:

  • Croup: Characterized by a harsh, barking cough

  • Ingestion: Sudden onset of throat soreness following ingestion of a household product

  • Peritonsillar or retropharyngeal abscess: Collection of pus located either behind the tonsils (peritonsillar) or at the back of the throat (retropharyngeal), necessitating medical intervention

  • Stomatitis: Resulting from viral infections, leading to mouth and throat sores. Typically resolves on its own, but treatments can ease soreness

  • Strep throat: Diagnosis confirmed through a swab test and throat culture


Signs and symptoms of a sore throat


In adults

Throat pain and scratchiness are primary symptoms, accompanied by potential additional symptoms such as:

  • Difficulty swallowing

  • Hoarseness

  • Increased pain when swallowing or speaking

  • Swollen glands in the neck or jaw, often tender

  • Enlarged, red tonsils

  • Presence of white patches or pus on the tonsils

In children

Young children may exhibit a sore throat if they experience any of the following:

  • Excessive fatigue

  • Drooling

  • Presence of pus in the throat

  • Refusal to drink fluids

  • Difficulty swallowing

Seek immediate evaluation from your primary care provider for accurate diagnosis and treatment.


When to see your primary care provider 


Consult your provider if experiencing a sore throat accompanied by any of these:

  • Allergic reaction to antibiotics

  • Presence of blood in saliva or phlegm

  • Ear pain

  • Fever exceeding 101 F (38.3 C)

  • Joint discomfort

  • Notable lump in the neck

  • Onset of new symptoms

  • Difficulty swallowing

  • Skin rash

  • Persistent sore throat

  • Swelling in the neck or face

  • Difficulty breathing due to swollen tonsils

  • Symptoms persist for over a week or don't improve within 2–3 days of antibiotic treatment

  • Pain hinders drinking fluids

Seek urgent medical help if a sore throat is coupled with:

  • Dizziness or lightheadedness

  • Sense of impending doom

  • Skin discoloration (blue, purple, or gray)

  • Breathing or speaking difficulties


Take your child to your pediatrician or primary care provider if your child exhibits symptoms of a sore throat along with any of the following:

  • Fever

  • Rash, headache, stomachache, or vomiting

  • Excessive sleepiness making it hard to wake or keep awake

  • Stiff neck

Seek immediate medical care for your child if experiencing:

  • Difficulty breathing

  • Difficulty swallowing

  • Excessive drooling, possibly indicating an inability to swallow



To diagnose the cause of your sore throat or your child’s sore throat, your primary care provider will take your health history, perform a physical exam and may run some diagnostic tests, such as:

  • A blood test to check for mononucleosis

  • A chest X-ray to rule out pneumonia especially if you have a cough

  • A throat swab for a rapid strep test


Sore throat treatment and at-home remedies 

Your primary care provider will devise a personalized treatment strategy tailored to your diagnosis and symptoms. For a straightforward viral sore throat, there are various measures you can take to alleviate discomfort:

  • Refrain from consuming alcohol, spicy foods, and acidic beverages.

  • Avoid smoking and exposure to secondhand smoke.

  • Drink warm liquids to soothe the throat and thin mucus.

  • Gargle with warm salt water (1 teaspoon of salt per 8 ounces of warm water).

  • Utilize over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers like acetaminophen or ibuprofen.

  • Consider throat sprays and lozenges for relief.

  • Employ a humidifier to maintain indoor air moisture.

Depending on the underlying cause of your sore throat, additional steps may be incorporated into your treatment plan. In cases of bacterial infections such as strep throat, your provider may prescribe antibiotics.

For individuals experiencing tonsillitis, surgical removal of the tonsils, known as a tonsillectomy, may be recommended. This is typically advised in instances of:

  • Frequent and severe episodes of tonsillitis within a year.

  • Tonsillitis stemming from the accumulation of food particles in tonsil pouches (cryptic tonsillitis).

  • Tonsillitis causing respiratory difficulties during sleep.


Sore throat prevention

Prevention is all about avoiding germs and practicing good hygiene by following these suggestions:

  • Steer clear of close contact with individuals who are ill, and refrain from sharing food, cups, and utensils

  • Regularly sanitize telephones, TV remotes, and computer keyboards using disinfectant cleansers

  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing or sneezing, and promptly dispose of it, or use your elbow

  • Thoroughly wash your hands for at least 20 seconds, particularly after using the restroom, before meals, and after coughing or sneezing. Alternatively, utilize alcohol-based hand sanitizers