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 (pharyngitis) is a viral infection, such as a cold or the flu. A sore throat caused by a virus resolves on its own.
Strep throat (streptococcal infection), a less common type of sore throat caused by bacteria, requires treatment with antibiotics to prevent complications. Other less common causes of sore throat might require more complex treatment.
Symptoms of a sore throat can vary depending on the cause. Signs and symptoms might include:
Infections causing a sore throat might result in other signs and symptoms, including:
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 and symptoms such as:
If you're an adult, see your doctor if you have a sore throat and any of the following associated problems, according to the American Academy of Otolaryngology — Head and Neck Surgery:
Your throat includes your esophagus, windpipe (trachea), voice box (larynx), tonsils and epiglottis.
Viruses that cause the common cold and the flu also cause most sore throats. Less often, bacterial infections cause sore throats.
Viral illnesses that cause a sore throat include:
A number of bacterial infections can cause a sore throat. The most common is Streptococcus pyogenes (group A streptococcus) which causes strep throat.
Other causes of a sore throat include:
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). GERD is a digestive system disorder in which stomach acids back up in the food pipe (esophagus).
Other signs or symptoms may include heartburn, hoarseness, regurgitation of stomach contents and the sensation of a lump in your throat.
HIV infection. A sore throat and other flu-like symptoms sometimes appear early after someone is infected with HIV.
Also, someone who is HIV-positive might have a chronic or recurring sore throat due to a fungal infection called oral thrush or due to a viral infection called cytomegalovirus (CMV), which can be serious in people with compromised immune systems.
Rarely, an infected area of tissue (abscess) in the throat or swelling of the small cartilage "lid" that covers the windpipe (epiglottitis) can cause a sore throat. Both can block the airway, creating a medical emergency.
Although anyone can get a sore throat, some factors make you more susceptible, including:
The best way to prevent sore throats is to avoid the germs that cause them and practice good hygiene. Follow these tips and teach your child to do the same:
Your or your child's doctor will start with a physical exam that will include:
In many cases, doctors use a simple test to detect streptococcal bacteria, the cause of strep throat. The doctor rubs a sterile swab over the back of the throat to get a sample of secretions and sends the sample to a lab for testing. Many clinics are equipped with a lab that can get a test result for a rapid antigen test within a few minutes. However, a second, often more reliable test, called a throat culture, is sometimes sent to a lab that returns results within 24 to 48 hours.
Rapid antigen tests aren't as sensitive, although they can detect strep bacteria quickly. Because of this, the doctor may send a throat culture to a lab to test for strep throat if the antigen test comes back negative.
In some cases, doctors may use a molecular test to detect streptococcal bacteria. In this test, a doctor swipes a sterile swab over the back of the throat to get a sample of secretions. The sample is tested in a lab. Your or your child's doctor may have accurate results within a few minutes.
A sore throat caused by a viral infection usually lasts five to seven days and doesn't require medical treatment.
To ease pain and fever, many people turn to acetaminophen (Tylenol, others) or other mild pain relievers.
Consider giving your child over-the-counter pain medications designed for infants or children, such as acetaminophen (Children's Tylenol, FeverAll, others) or ibuprofen (Children's Advil, Children's Motrin, others), to ease symptoms.
Never give aspirin to children or teenagers because it has been linked to Reye's syndrome, a rare but potentially life-threatening condition that causes swelling in the liver and brain.
If your or your child's sore throat is caused by a bacterial infection, your doctor or pediatrician will prescribe antibiotics.
You or your child must take the full course of antibiotics as prescribed even if the symptoms are gone. Failure to take all of the medication as directed can result in the infection worsening or spreading to other parts of the body.
Not completing the full course of antibiotics to treat strep throat can increase a child's risk of rheumatic fever or serious kidney inflammation.
Talk to your doctor or pharmacist about what to do if you forget a dose.
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.
Regardless of the cause of your sore throat, these at-home care strategies can help you ease your or your child's symptoms:
Although a number of alternative treatments are commonly used to soothe a sore throat, evidence is limited about what works. If you or your child needs an antibiotic for a bacterial infection, don't rely on alternative treatments alone.
Check with your doctor before using any herbal remedies, as they can interact with prescription medications and may not be safe for children, pregnant and breast-feeding women, and people with certain health conditions.
Herbal or alternative products for a sore throat are often packaged as teas, sprays or lozenges. Common alternative remedies include:
If you or your child has a sore throat, make an appointment with your family doctor or your child's pediatrician. In some cases, you may be referred to a specialist in ear, nose and throat (ENT) disorders or an allergy specialist (allergist).
Here's some information to help you get ready for your appointment.
Make a list of:
For a sore throat, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:
Don't hesitate to ask other questions.
Your doctor is likely to ask questions about you or your child. Your doctor might ask: