A sore throat is the general name for 2 common conditions:
- Pharyngitis—swelling and inflammation of the pharynx (the back of the throat, including the back of the tongue)
- Tonsillopharyngitis—swelling and inflammation of the pharynx and the tonsils (soft tissue that makes up part of the throat's immune defenses)
Many things can cause a sore throat, such as:
- Infection with a virus, such as the viruses that cause the flu, herpangina, and the common cold
- Infection with bacteria, such as those that cause strep throat
- Infectious mononucleosis
- Mucus from your sinuses that drains into your throat
- Breathing polluted air
- Drinking alcoholic beverages
- Hay fever or other allergies
- Acid reflux from the stomach
- Food debris collecting in small pockets in the tonsils
- Certain immune or inflammatory disorders
Sore throats are more common children, teens, or people aged 65 years and older. Other factors that may increase your chance of a sore throat include:
Along with the sore throat, you may have other symptoms, such as:
- Pain or difficulty when swallowing
- Runny nose or stuffy nose
- Enlarged lymph nodes in your neck
- Hoarse voice
- Red or irritated-looking throat
- Swollen tonsils
- White patches on or near your tonsils
- Difficulty breathing
When Should I Call My Doctor?
Call your doctor if you:
- Experience a worsening of your sore throat or the symptom lasts longer than you or your doctor expect
- Have difficulty swallowing or breathing
Have developed other symptoms, such as:
- White patches on tonsils (may be a sign of strep throat)
- Enlarged lymph nodes on your neck
- Nausea or vomiting
- Muscle or joint aches
- Blood in saliva
The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests calling your child's doctor if your child has a sore throat that goes on for more than 1 day (no matter what other symptoms are present).
If you think you have an emergency, call for emergency medical services right away.
Your doctor will do a physical exam. This involves looking closely at your mouth, throat, nose, ears, and the lymph nodes in your neck.
This physical exam may include:
- Using a small instrument to look inside the nose, ears, and mouth
- Gently touching the lymph nodes (glands) in your neck to check for swelling
- Taking your temperature
The doctor will ask questions about:
- Your family and medical history
- Recent exposure to someone with strep throat or any other infection of the throat, nose, or ears
Other tests include:
- Rapid strep test or throat culture—using a cotton swab to touch the back of the throat to check for strep throat
- Blood tests—to identify some conditions that may be causing the sore throat
- Mono spot test—if mononucleosis is suspected
Treatment depends on the cause of the sore throat. Options may include:
- Pain relievers or fever reducers
- Note: Aspirin is not recommended for children with a current or recent viral infection. Check with your doctor before giving your child aspirin.
- Antibiotics for a sore throat caused by a bacterial infection
- Throat lozenges
- Decongestants and antihistamines to relieve nasal congestion and runny nose
- Numbing throat spray for pain control in older children and adults, although the relief is very short-lived
- Corticosteroids if there is trouble breathing
Self-care steps you can do at home:
- Get plenty of rest
- Drink plenty of fluids
- Try warm liquids (tea or broth), or cool liquids
- Gargle with warm saline several times a day
- Avoid irritants that might affect your throat, such as tobacco smoke and cold air
- Avoid drinking alcohol
To help reduce your chance of a sore throat:
- Wash your hands frequently. Do this especially after blowing your nose or after caring for a child with a sore throat.
- If someone in your home has a sore throat, keep their eating utensils and drinking glasses separate from those of other family members. Wash these objects in hot, soapy water.
- If a toddler with a sore throat has been sucking on toys, wash the toys in soap and water.
- Immediately get rid of used tissues, and then wash your hands.
- If you have hay fever or another respiratory allergy, see your doctor. Avoid the substance that causes your allergy.
- Reviewer: David Horn, MD, FACP
- Review Date: 09/2016 -
- Update Date: 09/30/2014 -