Sore Throat

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Sore Throat

Topic Overview

Sore throats can be painful and annoying. Fortunately, most sore throats are caused by a minor illness and go away without medical treatment.

Several conditions can cause a sore throat.

Viral infections

Many sore throats are caused by a viral illness, such as:

Bacterial infections

A bacterial infection may also cause a sore throat. This can occur from:

Irritants and injuries

A sore throat that lasts longer than a week is often caused by irritants or an injuries, such as:

  • Throat irritation from low humidity, smoking, air pollution, yelling, or nasal drainage down the back of the throat (post-nasal drip).
  • Breathing through the mouth when you have allergies or a stuffy nose.
  • Stomach acid that backs up into the throat, which may be a symptom of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Although this often occurs with heartburn, an acid taste in the mouth, or a cough, sometimes a sore throat is the only symptom.
  • An injury to the back of the throat, such as a cut or puncture from falling with a pointed object in the mouth.
  • Chronic fatigue syndrome, a condition that causes extreme tiredness.

Treatment for a sore throat depends on the cause. You may be able to use home treatment to obtain relief.

Because viral illnesses are the most common cause of a sore throat, it is important not to use antibiotics to treat them. Antibiotics do not alter the course of viral infections. Unnecessary use of an antibiotic exposes you to the risks of an allergic reaction and antibiotic side effects, such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, rashes, and yeast infections. Antibiotics also may kill beneficial bacteria and encourage the development of dangerous antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Use the Check Your Symptoms section to decide if and when you should see a doctor.

For more information, see:

Click here to view a Decision Point. Sore Throat: Should I Take Antibiotics?

Health Tools Health Tools help you make wise health decisions or take action to improve your health.

Health Tools help you make wise health decisions or take action to improve your health.


Decision Points focus on key medical care decisions that are important to many health problems. Decision Points focus on key medical care decisions that are important to many health problems.
  Sore Throat: Should I Take Antibiotics?

Check Your Symptoms

Home Treatment

Home treatment is usually all that is needed for a sore throat caused by a virus. These tips may help you feel better.

  • Gargle with warm salt water to help reduce swelling and relieve discomfort:
    • Gargle at least once each hour with 5 g (1 tsp) of salt dissolved in 240 mL (8 fl oz) of warm water.
    • If you have post-nasal drip, gargle often to prevent more throat irritation.
  • Prevent dehydration. Fluids may help thin secretions and soothe an irritated throat. Hot fluids, such as tea or soup, may help decrease throat irritation.
  • Use a vaporizer or humidifier in your bedroom.
    • Warm or cool mist may help you feel more comfortable by soothing the swollen air passages. It may also relieve hoarseness. However, don't let your room become uncomfortably cold or very damp.
    • Use a shallow pan of water to provide moisture in the air through evaporation if you don't have a humidifier. Place the pan in a safe location where no one will trip on it or fall into it.
  • Do not smoke or use other tobacco products and avoid second-hand smoke. For more information, see the topic Quitting Smoking.
  • If you suspect that problems with stomach acid may be causing your sore throat, see the topic Heartburn.

Consider taking non-prescription medicine for your symptoms.

  • Use non-prescription throat lozenges.
    • Some non-prescription throat lozenges, such as Sucrets Maximum Strength or Spec-T, are safe and effective and have medicine (local anesthetic) that numbs the throat to soothe pain.
    • Regular cough drops may also help.
  • Use a decongestant.
    • Decongestants make breathing easier by shrinking swollen mucous membranes in the nose, allowing air to pass through. They also help relieve a runny nose and post-nasal drip, which can cause a sore throat.
    • Decongestants can be taken orally or used as decongestant nasal sprays. Oral decongestants (pills) are probably more effective and provide longer relief but may cause more side effects.
    • Before you give decongestant medicines to a child, check the label. These medicines are not recommended for children younger than age 6. For more information about medicine safety, see the topics Over-the-Counter Medicine Precautions and Quick Tips: Giving Over-the-Counter Medicines to Children.
Medicine you can buy without a prescription
Try a non-prescription medicine to help treat your fever or pain:
Safety tips
Be sure to follow these safety tips when you use a non-prescription medicine:
  • Carefully read and follow all directions on the medicine bottle and box.
  • Do not take more than the recommended dose.
  • Do not take a medicine if you have had an allergic reaction to it in the past.
  • If you have been told to avoid a medicine, call your doctor before you take it.
  • If you are or could be pregnant, do not take any medicine other than acetaminophen unless your doctor has told you to.
  • Do not give ASA to anyone younger than age 20 unless your doctor tells you to.

Additional home treatment can be found in topics related to sore throat.

Symptoms to Watch For During Home Treatment

Use the Check Your Symptoms section to evaluate your symptoms if any of the following occur during home treatment:

  • Difficulty breathing develops.
  • Severe pain develops.
  • Inability to drink enough fluids develops.
  • A new rash or fever develops.
  • Signs of dehydration are present.
  • A persistent sore throat or fever develops.
  • Symptoms become more severe or more frequent.

Prevention

There is no sure way to prevent a sore throat. To help reduce your risk:

  • Drink enough fluids to prevent dehydration.
  • Wash your hands often, especially when you are around people who are sick.
  • Identify and avoid irritants, such as smoke, fumes, or yelling, that cause a sore throat.
  • Do not smoke or use other tobacco products and avoid exposure to second-hand smoke. For more information, see the topic Quitting Smoking.
  • Avoid contact with people who have strep throat.
  • If you have mononucleosis, do not share eating or drinking utensils to prevent spreading the virus to others. A brief kiss on the lips is not likely to spread mono; it is spread when saliva from an infected person enters another person's mouth.

Preparing For Your Appointment

To prepare for your appointment, see the topic Making the Most of Your Appointment.

You can help your doctor diagnose and treat your condition by being ready to answer the following questions:

  • When did your throat symptoms begin?
  • Do you have a fever? Describe your fever pattern.
  • Do other family members, friends, or co-workers have similar complaints?
  • Do you have other symptoms associated with the sore throat, such as a head cold?
  • What makes the pain worse?
  • Have you had your tonsils removed?
  • Have you been diagnosed with strep throat in the past? How long ago? Was it found during a doctor visit, with a rapid strep test or with a throat culture? How was it treated?
  • What home treatment have you tried? Did it help?
  • What prescription and non-prescription medicines have you tried? Did they help?
  • Do you have any health risks?

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer William M. Green, MD - Emergency Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer H. Michael O'Connor, MD - Emergency Medicine
Last Revised August 3, 2011

This information does not replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise, Incorporated disclaims any warranty or liability for your use of this information.