Sore Throat

Sore throat is a common medical condition that usually lasts a couple of days and gets better on its own; however, sometimes a sore throat can be serious. Read on to learn more about sore throats and when you should see your health care provider.

What are the common causes of sore throat?

Most of the time, a sore throat is caused by a virus such as the cold virus, flu, or mono but it can also be caused by bacteria such as “strep”. Viruses that cause sore throat may also cause sneezing, coughing, runny nose, watery eyes, and mild headache. Some people will also have fever, but it’s usually between 99º – 100º F. Symptoms are usually mild, last 2-7 days, and will usually clear up on their own. Prescription medicine is not usually needed, but over-the-counter products such as throat lozenges (cough drops) or acetaminophen (Example: Tylenol®) or ibuprofen (Motrin®/Advil®) can help make you feel better.

You’ve probably also heard of “strep throat”. The word, “strep” is short for the name of the bacteria (streptococci) that causes the infection. “Group A” streptococci is a common type of this bacteria that’s responsible for most strep throats. People with “strep throat” have enlarged red tonsils (called tonsillitis), often with white patches and swollen glands. Strep throat is more serious and requires a visit to your health care provider, a rapid strep test and/or throat culture, and treatment with antibiotics (prescription medicine).

Mono (short for mononucleosis) is a common viral cause of bad sore throat especially in teens. The tonsils usually are big with white patches and you may feel very tired. Flu causes sore throat with body aches and high fever.

Other common causes of sore throat:

  • Allergies – such as hay fever, dust, animals
  • Smoke – either smoking or being around someone else who smokes
  • Dry air – such as living/sleeping where the air has low moisture (wood stoves)
  • Contact with certain chemical irritants such as cleaning products, insecticides

How do I know if I should see my health care provider?

Most of the time, a sore throat will feel better in a couple of days, but other times you’ll need medicine to get better. Sore throat, swollen glands, and fever with no cold symptoms could mean you have strep throat.

You should make an appointment with your health care provider if you’re worried about how you feel or you have ANY of the following symptoms:

  • Pain in your throat that is getting worse
  • White patches or pus on your tonsil(s)
  • Fever over 100º F
  • Symptoms of dehydration (lack of fluids in your body from having trouble swallowing liquids) such as: dry mouth, thirsty, not peeing very often, sleepy
  • Rash (anywhere on your body)
  • Headache that doesn’t get better with over-the-counter medicine such as Acetaminophen or Ibuprofen
  • Stomach pain
  • You have been close to someone who has strep throat

ALERT: Go to the nearest emergency room if you have trouble breathing!

What can I do to feel better?

  • Follow your health care provider’s advice and take medicine, if prescribed.
  • Drink lots of fluids – cool liquids such as water and ginger ale can help. Sucking on an ice pop and drinking warm liquid such as soup and decaffeinated tea are good too.
  • Rest – take naps and go to bed early
  • Gargle with salt-water but don’t swallow
  • Try throat lozenges
  • Take acetaminophen or ibuprofen – NEVER take Aspirin or products that contain aspirin if you have the flu (as this can rarely lead to Reye’s Syndrome)
  • Stay home while you have a fever

How can I prevent getting a sore throat?

There are definitely things you can do to lessen your chance of getting germs that cause sore throat.

Here are a few smart tips:

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water (or use antibacterial hand sanitizer when you are unable to use soap and water)
  • Avoid touching your eyes and nose
  • Don’t smoke and avoid contact with others who smoke
  • Don’t share water bottles, cups, utensils, etc.
  • Keep away from people who are sick with colds, flu, strep throat, or upper respiratory infections

Additional Resources

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Sore Throat


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