A sore throat is pain, scratchiness or irritation of the throat that often worsens when you swallow.
The most common cause of a sore throat is a viral infection, such as a cold or the flu.
Symptoms of a sore throat may vary depending on the cause. Signs and symptoms may include:
- Pain or a scratchy sensation in the throat
- Pain that worsens with swallowing or talking
- Difficulty swallowing
- Dry throat
- Sore, swollen glands in your neck or jaw
- Swollen, red tonsils
- White patches or pus on your tonsils
- Hoarse or muffled voice
Common infections causing a sore throat may result in other signs and symptoms, as well. They may include:
- Runny nose
- Body aches
- Nausea or vomiting
When to see a doctor
Take your child to a doctor if your child’s sore throat doesn’t go away with the first drink in the morning, recommends the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Get immediate care if your child has severe signs such as:
- Difficulty breathing
- Difficulty swallowing
- Unusual drooling, which may indicate an inability to swallow
Most sore throats are caused by viruses that cause the common cold and flu (influenza). Less often, sore throats are due to bacterial infections.
Viral illnesses that cause a sore throat include:
- Common cold
- Flu (influenza)
- Mononucleosis (mono)
- Croup — a common childhood illness characterized by a harsh, barking cough
Bacterial infections that can cause a sore throat include:
- Strep throat, which is caused by a bacterium known as Streptococcus pyogenes, or group A streptococcus
- Whooping cough, a highly contagious respiratory tract infection
- Diphtheria, a serious respiratory illness that’s rare in industrialized nations, but is more common in developing countries
Other causes of sore throat include:
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
Tests and diagnosis
Your doctor will start with a physical exam that is generally the same for children and adults. The exam will include:
- Using a lighted instrument to look at your throat, and likely your ears and nasal passages
- Gently feeling (palpating) your neck to check for swollen glands (lymph nodes)
- Listening to your breathing with a stethoscope
With this simple test, the doctor rubs a sterile swab over the back of your throat to get a sample of secretions. The sample will be checked in a lab for streptococcal bacteria, the cause of strep throat. Many clinics are equipped with a lab that can get a test result within a few minutes. However, a second more reliable test is usually sent out to a lab that can return results within 24 to 48 hours.
- Complete blood count (CBC)
- Allergy tests.
Treatments and drugs
A sore throat caused by viral infection — the most common cause — usually lasts five to seven days and doesn’t require medical treatment.
Treating bacterial infections
If your sore throat is caused by a bacterial infection, your doctor will prescribe a course of antibiotics. Penicillin taken by mouth for 10 days is the most common antibiotic treatment prescribed for infections such as strep throat. If you’re allergic to penicillin, your doctor will prescribe an alternative antibiotic.
If a sore throat is a symptom of a condition other than a viral or bacterial infection, other treatments will likely be considered depending on the diagnosis.
Lifestyle and home remedies
- Get plenty of sleep and rest your voice.
- Drink fluids.
- Try comforting foods and beverage. Warm liquids — broth, caffeine-free tea or warm water with honey — and cold treats such as ice pops can soothe a sore throat.
- Gargle saltwater.
- Consider lozenges. Lozenges can soothe a sore throat. Because lozenges are a choking hazard for young children, don’t give them to children age 4 and younger.
- Avoid irritants.
- Treat pain and fever. Ibuprofen or acetaminophen may minimize throat pain.
The germs that cause viral and bacterial infections are contagious. Therefore, the best prevention is to practice good hygiene. Follow these tips and teach your child to do the same:
- Wash your hands thoroughly and frequently, especially after using the toilet, before eating, and after sneezing or coughing.
- Avoid sharing food, drinking glasses or utensils.
- Cough or sneeze into a tissue and throw it away. When necessary, sneeze into your elbow.
- Use alcohol-based hand sanitizers as an alternative to hand-washing when soap and water aren’t available.
- Avoid touching public phones or drinking fountains with your mouth.
- Regularly clean telephones, TV remotes and computer keyboards with sanitizing cleanser. When you travel, clean phones and remotes in your hotel room.
- Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
Other tips to avoid sore throat include the following:
- Stay indoors as much as possible on high-pollution days.
- Wear a filtering mask when cleaning to avoid inhaling dust or airborne particles from cleaning products.
- If you smoke, quit. Talk to your doctor if you need help breaking a smoking habit.
- Avoid exposure to secondhand smoke.
- Humidify your home if the air is dry.