What Is a Sore Throat?
A sore throat refers to pain, itchiness, or irritation of the
throat. You may have difficulty swallowing food and liquids, and the pain may
get worse when you try to swallow. Throat pain is the primary symptom of a sore
throat. However, other symptoms may include:
- a dry throat
- swollen glands in the neck
- white patches on the tonsils
A sore throat can affect people of all ages, but the risk of a
sore throat is higher in some people. This includes
- people with allergies
- people with a compromised immune system
Sharing a close space with others also increases the risk of
upper respiratory infections that can initially present as a sore throat.
Causes of a Sore Throat
There are several causes of a sore throat.
The majority of sore throats are triggered by a viral infection.
These are infections caused by a virus, such as the cold or flu.
Other types of viral infections include:
- mononucleosis, which is an infectious disease
typically transmitted through saliva
- measles, which is a contagious illness
characterized by a distinct rash and fever
- chickenpox, which is an infection that causes
- croup, which is an infection of the larynx
A bacterial infection can also cause a sore throat. These types
of infections include:
- strep throat, which is an inflammation of the
throat caused by the Streptococcus pyogenes bacteria
- diphtheria, which causes throat inflammation
- whooping cough, which affects the respiratory
Not all sore throats are viral or bacterial. There are several
other causes of throat pain:
- If you’re allergic to mold, pet dander, pollen,
or other irritants, exposure to these allergens can trigger postnasal drip.
This is when excess mucus accumulates in the back of your throat. This
accumulation can irritate your throat and cause pain or inflammation.
- Dry air can also make your throat feel raw and
- Smoking cigarettes or exposure to cigarette
smoke can trigger persistent sore throats.
- Yelling or too much talking can trigger throat
Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) may also cause a sore
throat. This is a digestive condition that occurs when stomach acid flows back into
the esophagus. This condition causes an array of symptoms, such as:
- a sore throat
In very rare cases, a sore throat may be a sign of HIV or throat
When to See Your Doctor
Most sore throats don’t require medical attention. However, see
your doctor if your sore throat lasts for longer than one week and if you
experience any of the following:
- difficulty breathing
- joint pain
- difficulty swallowing
- an earache
- a rash
- a fever over 101˚F
- bloody mucus
- a lump in the throat
- hoarseness that lasts longer than two weeks
How Is a Sore Throat Diagnosed?
Determining the cause of your sore throat can help your doctor
treat your symptoms. Your doctor will do a physical examination and examine
your throat with a lighted instrument. They’ll look for signs of inflammation
or white patches, which might indicate strep throat. Your doctor will also feel
your neck for swollen glands and check your breathing.
Because strep throat is a common cause of sore throats, your
doctor may swab the back of your throat and examine the sample for S. pyogenes. They may also run a blood test
to determine whether you have a viral or bacterial infection.
If your doctor is unable to diagnose your sore throat, they’ll
refer you to an allergist or an ear, nose, and throat specialist. These
specialists can determine whether allergens or a throat disorder is the cause
of your sore throat.
Note that it can be difficult to diagnose a sore throat in
infants and toddlers. In this age group, refusal to eat is a common sign of
How Is a Sore Throat Treated?
The treatment for a sore throat depends on the cause. However, you
can treat many sore throats at home. Home treatment options include:
- gargling with warm salt water
- drinking plenty of warm fluids, such as teas,
soup, and water
- avoiding allergens and irritants, such as smoke
- taking throat lozenges
- reducing inflammation with ibuprofen or
If a bacterial infection causes your sore throat, your doctor
will prescribe a course of antibiotics to kill the infectious organisms. You
should take your medication for 10 days or as prescribed by your doctor to
treat the bacterial infection. A sore throat may recur if you stop treatment
If you have a viral infection, your doctor may want to let the
virus run its course. During that time, they may prescribe medications, such as
decongestants and pain relievers, to ease your symptoms. In some cases, your
doctor may want to try an antiviral drug to fight the virus.
How to Prevent a Sore Throat
Many underlying causes of sore throats are infectious, and there
are certain steps that can help you prevent future infection. Repeatedly
washing your hands throughout the day kills germs and bacteria that can cause
viral and bacterial infections. Additional steps you can take to prevent a sore
throat include the following:
- Don’t share drinking glasses or utensils with
- Use hand sanitizers whenever soap and water aren’t
- Limit contact with commonly touched surfaces.
- Reduce exposure to allergens, such as pollen,
dust, and mold.
- Avoid cigarette smoke.
- Keep a humidifier in your house to eliminate