A sore throat is discomfort, pain, or scratchiness in the throat. A sore throat often makes it painful to swallow.
Sore throats are common. Most of the time the soreness is worse in the morning and improves as the day progresses.
Like colds, the vast majority of sore throats are caused by viral infections. This means most sore throats will NOT respond to antibiotics. Many people have a mild sore throat at the beginning of every cold. When the nose or sinuses become infected, drainage can run down the back of the throat and irritate it, especially at night. Or, the throat itself can be infected.
Sore Throat Types and Causes
Some viruses can cause specific types of sore throat. For example, Coxsackievirus sometimes causes blisters in the throat, especially in the late summer and early fall. Mononucleosis and the flu can also cause specific viral throat infections.
Strep throat is the most common bacterial cause of sore throat. Because strep throat can occasionally lead to rheumatic fever, antibiotics are given. Strep throat often includes a fever (greater than 101°F), white, draining patches on the throat, and swollen or tender lymph glands in the neck. Children may have a headache and stomach pain.
A sore throat is less likely to be strep throat if it is a minor part of a typical cold (with runny nose, stuffy ears, cough, and similar symptoms). Strep can NOT be accurately diagnosed by looking at the throat alone. It requires a laboratory test.
Sometimes breathing through the mouth will cause a sore throat in the absence of any infection. During the months of dry winter air, some people will wake up with a sore throat most mornings. This usually disappears after having something to drink.
In addition, allergies (allergic rhinitis) can cause a sore throat.
With a sore throat, sometimes the tonsils or surrounding parts of the throat are inflamed. Either way, removing the tonsils to try to prevent future sore throats is not recommended for most children.
- Breathing through the mouth (can cause drying and irritation of the throat)
- Common cold
- Endotracheal intubation (tube insertion)
- Infectious mononucleosis
- Something stuck in the throat
- Strep throat
- Surgery such as tonsillectomy and adenoidectomy
- Viral pharyngitis
Most sore throats are soon over. In the meantime, the following remedies may help:
- Drink warm liquids. Honey or lemon tea is a time-tested remedy.
- Gargle several times a day with warm salt water (1/2 tsp of salt in 1 cup water).
- Cold liquids or popsicles help some sore throats.
- Sucking on hard candies or throat lozenges can be very soothing, because it increases saliva production. This is often as effective as more expensive remedies, but should not be used in young children because of the choking risk.
- Use a cool-mist vaporizer or humidifier to moisten and soothe a dry and painful throat.
- Try over-the-counter pain medications, such as acetaminophen. Do NOT give aspirin to children.
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Call your health care provider if there is:
- Constant sensation of lump in throat or feel something stuck
- Excessive drooling in a young child
- Fever, especially 101°F or greater
- Pus in the back of the throat
- Red rash that feels rough, and increased redness in the skin folds
- Severe difficulty swallowing or breathing
- Tender or swollen lymph glands in the neck