A sore throat is pain, scratchiness or irritation of the throat that often worsens when you swallow.
A sore throat is the primary symptom of pharyngitis — inflammation of the throat (pharynx). But the terms "sore throat" and "pharyngitis" are often used interchangeably.
The most common cause of a sore throat is a viral infection, such as a cold or the flu. A sore throat caused by a virus resolves on its own with at-home care. Strep throat (streptococcal infection), a less common type of sore throat caused by bacteria, requires additional treatment with antibiotic drugs to prevent complications.
Other less common causes of sore throat may require more complex treatment.
Symptoms of a sore throat may vary depending on the cause. Signs and symptoms may include:
Common infections causing a sore throat may result in other signs and symptoms, as well. They may include:
When to see a doctor
Get immediate care if your child has severe signs such as:
If you're an adult, see your doctor if you have a sore throat and any of the following associated problems occur, according to the American Academy of Otolaryngology:
Your throat includes your tonsils, esophagus, voice box (larynx), epiglottis, vocal cords and windpipe (trachea). ...
Most sore throats are caused by viruses that cause the common cold and flu (influenza). Less often, sore throats are due to bacterial infections.
Rarely, an infected area of tissue (abscess) in the throat causes a sore throat. Another rare cause of a sore throat is a condition that occurs when the small cartilage "lid" that covers the windpipe swells, blocking airflow (epiglottitis). Both causes can block the airway, creating a medical emergency.
Although anyone can get a sore throat, some factors make you more susceptible. These factors include:
Preparing for your appointment
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.
What you can do
Preparing a list of questions will help you make the most of your time with your doctor. For sore throat, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:
Don't hesitate to ask other questions as they occur to you.
What to expect from your doctor
What you can do in the meantime
Tests and diagnosis
Your doctor will start with a physical exam that is generally the same for children and adults. The exam will include:
If the rapid, in-clinic test comes back positive, then you almost certainly have a bacterial infection. If the test comes back negative, then you likely have a viral infection. Your doctor will wait, however, for the more reliable, out-of-clinic lab test to determine the cause of the infection.
You may be referred to an ENT doctor or other specialist if you have chronic or frequent sore throat or if there are any signs or symptoms that suggest a serious condition other than a common viral or bacterial infection.
Treatments and drugs
A sore throat caused by viral infection — the most common cause — usually lasts five to seven days and doesn't require medical treatment.
Treating bacterial infections
You must take the full course of antibiotics as prescribed even if the symptoms go away completely. Failure to take all of the medication as directed may 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, in particular, increase a child's risk of rheumatic fever and serious kidney inflammation.
Talk to your doctor or pharmacist about what to do if you forget to take a dose.
Lifestyle and home remedies
Regardless of the cause of your sore throat, at-home care strategies usually provide temporary relief. Try these strategies:
Although a number of alternative treatments are commonly used to treat sore throat, evidence is limited about what works and what doesn't. Check with your doctor before using any herbal remedies, as they can interact with prescription medications and may not be safe for children, pregnant women and people with certain health conditions.
Herbal or alternative products for sore throat are often packaged as teas, sprays or lozenges. Common alternative remedies include:
The germs that cause viral and bacterial infections are contagious. Therefore, the best prevention is to practice good hygiene. Follow these tips and teach your child to do the same:
Other tips to avoid sore throat include the following:
Last Updated: 2013-05-07
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