Thumbnail image of: Head and Throat: Illustration
Thumbnail image of: Respiratory System: Illustration

Sore Throat

What is a sore throat?

Sore throat is a common symptom that ranges in severity from just a sense of scratchiness to severe pain.

What is the cause?

A sore throat can be caused by bacteria (such as strep) or a virus (such as a cold virus). It can also happen when an infection of the airways, sinuses, or mouth spreads to the throat.

Other causes of sore throat include:

  • Hay fever
  • Cigarette smoking or secondhand smoke
  • Breathing heavily polluted air or chemical fumes
  • Swallowing sharp foods that hurt the lining of the throat, such as a tortilla chip
  • Dry air
  • Heartburn (acid reflux)
  • Irritation of your throat from vomiting
  • Fluid draining down the back of your throat (postnasal drip)

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms may include:

  • A raw feeling in the throat that makes breathing, swallowing, or speaking painful
  • Redness of the throat
  • Fever
  • Hoarseness
  • Pain or difficulty swallowing because of swollen tonsils
  • Pus in your throat
  • Tender, swollen glands in your neck
  • Earache (you may feel pain in your ears even though the problem is in your throat)

How is it diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will ask about your symptoms and medical history and examine you. Your provider may swab your throat to test for strep infection. If your symptoms are more severe, you may need blood tests to check for sings of infection.

How is it treated?

A sore throat caused by a virus infection usually gets better on its own within 5 to 7 days. If your sore throat is caused by bacteria, your healthcare provider may prescribe an antibiotic. You will feel better after you have taken antibiotics for 2 to 3 days. You must take all of your antibiotic even when you are feeling better. If you don’t take all of it, your sore throat could come back.

If another health problem is causing the sore throat, such as hay fever, acid reflux, or sinusitis, treatment for that problem will also treat the sore throat.

How can I take care of myself?

Follow the full course of treatment prescribed by your healthcare provider. In addition:

  • Take nonprescription pain medicine, such as acetaminophen, ibuprofen, or naproxen. Read the label and take as directed. Unless recommended by your healthcare provider, you should not take these medicines for more than 10 days.
    • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medicines (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen, naproxen, and aspirin, may cause stomach bleeding and other problems. These risks increase with age.
    • Acetaminophen may cause liver damage or other problems. Unless recommended by your provider, don’t take more than 3000 milligrams (mg) in 24 hours. To make sure you don’t take too much, check other medicines you take to see if they also contain acetaminophen. Ask your provider if you need to avoid drinking alcohol while taking this medicine.
  • Don’t smoke, and stay away from others who are smoking.
  • Avoid breathing dust and chemical fumes.
  • Get plenty of rest.
  • You may want to rest your throat by talking less and eating a diet that is mostly liquid or soft for a day or two. Avoid salty or spicy foods and citrus fruits. Drink extra fluids, such as water, fruit juice, and tea.
  • Use a humidifier to put more moisture in the air. Avoid steam vaporizers because they can cause burns. Be sure to keep the humidifier clean, as recommended in the manufacturer’s instructions. It’s important to keep bacteria and mold from growing in the water container.
  • Cough drops may help relieve the soreness.
  • Gargling with warm saltwater may help. (You can make a saltwater solution by adding 1/4 teaspoon of salt to 8 ounces, or 240 mL, of warm water.)

If a sore throat lasts for more than a few days, call your healthcare provider. Serious causes of sore throat include strep throat and mononucleosis (mono). It is important to know if one of these is causing your sore throat.

Ask your healthcare provider:

  • How and when you will hear your test results
  • How long it will take to recover
  • If there are activities you should avoid and when you can return to your normal activities
  • How to take care of yourself at home
  • What symptoms or problems you should watch for and what to do if you have them

Make sure you know when you should come back for a checkup. Keep all appointments for provider visits or tests.

How can I prevent a sore throat?

The following suggestions may help prevent a sore throat:

  • Wash your hands often and especially after using the restroom, coughing, sneezing, or blowing your nose. Also wash your hands before eating or touching your eyes.
  • Stay at least 6 feet away from people who are sick, if you can.
  • Stay indoors as much as possible on high-pollution days.
  • If you have frequent heartburn or reflux disease, see your healthcare provider about preventing or treating these problems.
  • Take care of your health. Try to get at least 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night. Eat a healthy diet and try to keep a healthy weight. If you smoke, try to quit. If you want to drink alcohol, ask your healthcare provider how much is safe for you to drink. Learn ways to manage stress. Exercise according to your healthcare provider’s instructions.
Developed by RelayHealth.
Adult Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2014-10-21
Last reviewed: 2014-09-04
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright ©1986-2015 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.

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