Sore throatAlso known as Pharyngitis
Sore throat is marked by pain, itchiness or irritation of the throat, which is mostly caused by a virus but can also be caused by a bacteria. Moreover, environmental factors like pollutants, smoking & seasonal or food allergies can also cause sore throat. A painful throat can simply come along with a cold or runny nose but sometimes, it can be a sign of some underlying problems such as respiratory tract infections.
In most cases, a sore throat usually goes away on its own. But to relieve the pain from a sore throat, you could take over-the-counter medicines or throat lozenges. If you get a persistent cough along with sore throat, you can try a cough syrup based on the type of your cough. However, antibiotics are not required to cure a sore throat in most cases. So stop taking antibiotics for sore throat & consult your doctor, if your symptom fails to improve or worsens.
One of the best & simple ways to prevent a sore throat is to stay away from people suffering from respiratory infections & practise good hand hygiene such as washing hands. You can even try home remedies such as drinking hot water or gargling to soothe sore throat at home.
- All age groups
- Both men and women
Worldwide: 10-30% (2007)
- Retropharyngeal abscess
- Peritonsillar abscess
- EBV (obstruction in or near pharynx)
- Infectious mononucleosis
- Kawasaki disease
- Group A streptococcal infection
- Throat culture
- General physician
- ENT specialist
- Infectious disease specialist
Symptoms Of Sore Throat
A sore throat means that your throat hurts, feels irritated or scratchy. You may feel mild discomfort or burning pain in the throat and sometimes even difficulty in swallowing or talking. Your throat might become red. In some cases, white patches can be seen in your throat (mostly on tonsils), which are common in case of strep throat (a bacterial infection).
In addition to sore throat, you can also experience other symptoms such as:
Loss of appetite
Red and swollen tonsils
Note: The symptoms might vary based on the causes of the sore throat.
Causes Of Sore Throat
Some of the common causes of sore throat are:
Viral infections cause the majority of sore throats. These mostly include:
Flu or influenza
Infectious mononucleosis or glandular fever
Hand, foot and mouth disease (HFMD)
Many bacterial infections can cause a sore throat. The most common bacteria to cause sore throats are:
Streptococcus pyogenes (group A streptococcus) which causes strep throat.
Arcanobacterium haemolyticum causes sore throat mainly in adolescents and is sometimes accompanied by a red rash.
Less common causes of bacterial sore throat are chlamydia, gonorrhea and corynebacterium.
Allergies to pet fur or tiny pieces of skin shed by animals, molds, pollen, grass and dust can also cause sore throat.
Dry indoor air can reduce moisture in the mouth and make the throat feel rough and scratchy. Indoor air is mostly dry in the winters due to use of heaters.
Air pollution, cigarette or tobacco smoke, secondhand smoke, cleaning products and other chemicals, spicy foods, and hot liquids can also irritate the throat.
Sinus infections can cause post-nasal drip in which mucus runs down the back of the throat. This infected mucus can cause a sore throat.
Injuries like hit or cut to the neck, can cause pain in the throat. A piece of food or some external particle stuck in the throat can also irritate it.
Repeated use of vocal cords can strain the throat muscles. Yelling, talking loudly or talking or singing for long periods without a break, can cause sore throat.
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
It is a condition in which the stomach acids move back up into the food pipe. When the acid reach the throat, they can irritate it and cause sore throat.
Certain antibiotics, chemotherapy, or other immune-compromising medications can cause sore throat due to growth of the yeast candida.
In rare cases, cancerous tumors of the throat, tongue or voice box can also a sore throat.
Risk Factors For Sore Throat
Although anyone can suffer from sore throat, the following risk factors increase the chances of infection such as:
Children and adolescents are more susceptible to develop sore throat
Close contact with someone who is sick especially due to respiratory infections
Viral and bacterial Infections spread faster in close quarters, child care centers, classrooms, offices or airplanes
Cold and flu seasons
Regular exposure to cold environment
Chronic respiratory illness
Exposure to any irritants at home or workplace
Profession requiring overuse (shouting) of voice like teachers & fitness instructors
Drugs such as angiotensin converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors & chemotherapy drugs as well as long term use of steroids
Habit of snoring
Smoking or exposure to secondhand smoke
Weakened immunity due to poor diet, stress or conditions such as human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection & diabetes
Diagnosis Of Sore Throat
Your doctor will ask you a few questions about your symptoms followed by a physical examination of your throat. He/she might check the back of your throat for redness, swelling and white patches. Your doctor might also feel the sides of your throat to check for the presence of swollen glands.
If your doctor suspects strep throat, a bacterial infection, then a throat swab or culture will be advised to diagnose it. In some cases, your doctor might also recommend some additional tests to know the exact cause of the sore throat.
Throat swab: In this, a sterile swab is rubbed over the back of the throat to get a sample of secretions and sent to the lab for testing. Rapid antigen tests, although not sensitive, can detect strep bacteria quickly.
Throat culture: Your doctor may send a throat culture to a lab to test for strep throat if the antigen test comes back negative.
Prevention Of Sore Throat
A sore throat can be prevented by following some simple and effective steps.
1. Practice good hand hygiene
You should wash your hands properly with clean water and soap. You should scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds and work on hands from back, front, between your fingers and clean your nails properly. In order to keep your hands clean you should wash your hands thoroughly when you:
- Touch your eyes, mouth, and nose
- Are near a person who is having any type of infection
- Use toilets and bathrooms
- Cough, sneeze or clean your nose.
- Eat food
2. Avoid close contact with sick people
As viral infections are the common cause of sore throat, it is advised to stay away from people who suffer from sore throats, colds or any other upper respiratory infections. Do not share food, drinks, or utensils. Also, it is wise to wear a mask as it helps to prevent the spread of respiratory infections.
3. Avoid smoking and exposure to secondhand smoke/irritants
There are numerous health complications associated with smoking & sore throat is one of them. If you are a smoker, it is wise to quit smoking. You can try nicotine replacement therapy which is available in the form of patches & gums. Also, stay away from people who smoke as exposure to secondhand smoke can also up the risk of sore throat.
4. Eat healthy food
Make sure you have a healthy diet loaded with vitamins, minerals & antioxidants. Try to eat as much of home cooked food as possible & avoid oily, spicy & salty foods. Stay hydrated by drinking loads of fluids such as buttermilk, fruit juices, coconut water or plain water. It is best to drink lukewarm water or boiled water as it helps to keep your throat clean & healthy.
5. Boost your immunity
A strong immunity is undoubtedly one of the simple & effective ways to prevent infections. In addition to staying hydrated & eating a healthy diet, it is important to boost your immunity. Add lots of fresh fruits and vegetables to your diet as it provides essential nutrients such as vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, which strengthens your immune system and helps you to fight diseases. You can even try dietary nutritional supplements to boost your immunity and prevent infections.
Regular exercise or light workouts can help you stay fit and increase your immunity and hence fight sore throat.
7. Get adequate sleep
Without the required sleep, the immune system eventually becomes weaker leading to more frequent occurrence or slow recovery from sore throat.
Specialist To Visit
Most cases of sore throat, especially the ones caused due to a viral infection, get better on its own within a week or a few days. But if you suffer from bacterial infections like a strep throat, then do get in touch with your doctor to treat it.
You should seek medical care if you or your children show symptoms like fever (>101°F), watery eyes, red and swollen tonsils, body ache and red spots at the back of the roof of the mouth.
Match your symptoms with this checklist to know if you need to see a doctor for your painful throat:
- The sore throat gets better as the day goes on
- It hurts to the point that you’re having to change their diet
- The sore throat is accompanied by high fever (102°F or higher)
- If there is a rash, headache, stomach ache, or vomiting
- If you experience trouble in breathing or pain while breathing
- If you have earache or pain in the neck along with sore throat
- If you see blood in saliva or phlegm
- If none of the above are happening, chances are high that your sore throat will be fine in a day or two
Your family doctor or general practitioner can help you to diagnose the condition & provide the right treatment for sore throat. You can also see specialists such as:
Infectious disease specialist
Treatment Of Sore Throat
While sore throat caused due to viruses is usually self-limiting and no antibiotic treatment is needed; a bacterial cause may need prompt medical care.
1. Analgesics or pain relief medications
You can take over-the-counter (OTC) medications to relieve pain. These include:
Note: Never give aspirin to children as it can lead to Reye’s syndrome, a rare but very serious illness in kids that affects the liver and brain.
2. Cough syrups
In some cases, use of throat lozenges & cough syrups are also known to provide relief from sore throat.
3. Other drugs
If your sore throat is caused due to an underlying stomach problem such as gastrointestinal reflux disease (GERD), then medicines recommended include:
Antibiotics For Sore Throat: Yes Or No?
Mostly, a sore throat goes away in a week without the need of an antibiotic. But if your sore throat lasts longer than 1-2 weeks or you have a temperature higher than 100.4 °F or any other unusual symptom, then you might need an antibiotic. Your doctor may prescribe antibiotics if you or your kid tests positive for bacteria streptococcus pyogenes.
Usually, all antibiotics start showing its effect within 24 to 48 hours of administration. It is very important to complete the course of antibiotics which may last for 2 weeks. You should continue the medications even if the symptoms disappear in order to finish the antibiotic course.
Antibiotics are meant for treating bacterial infections. Since most sore throats are viral, using an antibiotic will not cure the condition. Taking antibiotics for viral infections will not only be costly but will also cause unwanted side effects like diarrhea & vomiting. Misuse and overuse of antibiotics leads to antibiotic resistance, a phenomenon that reduces or eliminates the effectiveness of antibiotics.
Home-care For Sore Throat
Here are some simple ways to help relieve a sore throat:
Avoid foods that are salty, spicy, acidic (like orange juice), or sharp (like potato chips) as it can irritate the throat of your child.
Stick with bland and soft food which makes it easy for the food to pass through the throat without irritating the throat.
Use a humidifier at home or workplace to help keep the throat moist.
You could try steam inhalation to help relieve congestion.
Suck on cough drops (like lozenges) to help lubricate and soothe irritated tissues of the throat.
Keep yourself hydrated with plenty of fluids as higher intake of liquid will not only keep you hydrated but also moisten your throat which makes it easier to swallow food.
Include foods such as warm soup, and soft veggies in your diet because such foods are comforting and easy to swallow.
Sip on warm liquids like warm water, lukewarm lemon water or herbal tea to soothe the throat and lessen the irritation.
Take proper rest because it is the only effective way which can be helpful for regaining the lost strength when sick.
To relieve the pain from a sore throat, you could take over-the-counter medicines such as paracetamol or you can try throat lozenges.
If your kid has a sore throat, avoid sending him/her to school for one to two days in order to prevent the spread of infection to other children in school.
If you get a persistent cough, try a cough syrup based on the type of your cough.
Complications Of Sore Throat
Sore throat caused due to bacteria (strep throat) can cause various health complications, if left ignored. Although not common, strep throat can cause serious complications if the bacteria spreads to other parts of the body. Some of the complications that can result include:
Sinusitis (infection of the sinuses)
Abscesses or pockets of pus around the tonsils
Swollen lymph nodes in the neck
Rheumatic fever (a heart disease)
Post-streptococcal glomerulonephritis (infection of the kidneys)
Alternative Treatment For Sore Throat
You can try some home remedies to soothe pain & irritation caused by a sore throat. Some of the common home remedies include:
Ginger (Adrak): Ginger has anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties. It also boosts immunity to help fight infections that cause sore throats. You can consume it in the form of raw ginger root, ginger candy or lozenge, ginger tea or ginger supplement pills and capsules.
Honey (Sehad): Mix 2 teaspoons of honey with equal quantity of ginger juice. Add this to a glass of warm water and drink it every morning. This concoction helps to expel mucus thereby providing relief for cough and sore throat.
Note: Don't give honey to children younger than one year of age.
Garlic (Lehsun): Garlic has natural antibacterial properties. It contains allicin, which is known for its ability to fight off infections. Suck on a clove of garlic to soothe your sore throat or consume it along with ginger in the form of tea. Taking a garlic supplement on a regular basis can also help to prevent sore throat.
Turmeric (Haldi): Turmeric is an excellent remedy for sore throat. You can mix half a teaspoon of turmeric and half teaspoon of salt into a cup of hot water and gargle with it. You can also add half a teaspoon of turmeric in a cup of milk to combat sore throat. It is advised to warm milk mixed with turmeric slowly over the flame and consume this drink once a day.
Chamomile (babunah ke phul) tea: Infuse the tea bag into a cup of boiling water, let it stay there for five minutes and as it is. You can add a small quantity of honey or sugar for an improved taste.
Licorice (mulethi) tea: Drink tea made from one teaspoon crushed licorice (mulethi) & one teaspoon jaggery powder steeped in one cup of boiling water for 3-5 minutes. You can even gargle with licorice water to fight sore throat & cough.
Frequently Asked Questions
- Sore Throat. Centres For Disease Prevention & Control (CDC). Last reviewed in Oct 2021.
- Acute Infective Sore Throat. Clinical Evidence Handbook. A Publication of BMJ Publishing Group.
- Renner B, Mueller CA, Shephard A. Environmental and non-infectious factors in the aetiology of pharyngitis (sore throat). Inflamm Res. 2012;61(10):1041-1052.
- Thompson M, Vodicka TA, Blair PS, et al. Duration of symptoms of respiratory tract infections in children: systematic review [published correction appears in BMJ. 2014;347:f7575]. BMJ. 2013;347:f7027. Published 2013 Dec 11.
- Tanz RR. Sore Throat. Nelson Pediatric Symptom-Based Diagnosis. 2018;1-14.e2.
- Kenealy T. Sore throat. BMJ Clin Evid. 2007;2007:1509. Published 2007 Nov 20.