Sore Throat : Symptoms, Causes & Prevention

A sore throat is pain, scratchiness or irritation of the throat that often worsens when you swallow. The most common cause of a sore throat (pharyngitis) is a viral infection, such as a cold or the flu. A sore throat caused by a virus resolves on its own.

Strep throat (streptococcal infection), a less common type of sore throat caused by bacteria, requires treatment with antibiotics to prevent complications. Other less common causes of sore throat might require more complex treatment.

Sore throats are divided into types, based on the part of the throat they affect:

Pharyngitis affects the area right behind the mouth.

Tonsillitis is swelling and redness of the tonsils, the soft tissue in the back of the mouth.

Laryngitis is swelling and redness of the voice box, or larynx.

Symptoms

Symptoms of a sore throat can vary depending on the cause. Signs and symptoms might include:

Swollen, red tonsils

White patches or pus on your tonsils

A hoarse or muffled voice

Pain or a scratchy sensation in the throat

Pain that worsens with swallowing or talking

Difficulty swallowing

Sore, swollen glands in your neck or jaw

Infections causing a sore throat might result in other signs and symptoms, including:

  • Sneezing
  • Body aches
  • Headache
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Runny nose

Causes

Viruses that cause the common cold and the flu also cause most sore throats. Less often, bacterial infections cause sore throats.

Bacterial infections

Many bacterial infections can cause a sore throat. The most common is Streptococcus pyogenes (group A streptococcus) which causes strep throat.
  • Viral infections
  • Viral illnesses that cause a sore throat include:
  • Measles
  • Chickenpox
  • Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19)
  • Croup — a common childhood illness characterized by a harsh, barking cough
  • Common cold
  • Flu (influenza)
  • Mono (mononucleosis)

Other causes

Other causes of a sore throat include:

Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). GERD is a digestive system disorder in which stomach acids back up in the food pipe (esophagus).

Other signs or symptoms may include heartburn, hoarseness, regurgitation of stomach contents and the sensation of a lump in your throat.

Allergies. Allergies to pet dander, molds, dust and pollen can cause a sore throat. The problem may be complicated by postnasal drip, which can irritate and inflame the throat.

Irritants. Outdoor air pollution and indoor pollution such as tobacco smoke or chemicals can cause a chronic sore throat. Chewing tobacco, drinking alcohol and eating spicy foods also can irritate your throat.

Dryness. Dry indoor air can make your throat feel rough and scratchy. Breathing through your mouth — often because of chronic nasal congestion — also can cause a dry, sore throat.

HIV infection. A sore throat and other flu-like symptoms sometimes appear early after someone is infected with HIV.

Also, someone who is HIV-positive might have a chronic or recurring sore throat due to a fungal infection called oral thrush or due to a viral infection called cytomegalovirus (CMV), which can be serious in people with compromised immune systems.

Tumors. Cancerous tumors of the throat, tongue or voice box (larynx) can cause a sore throat. Other signs or symptoms may include hoarseness, difficulty swallowing, noisy breathing, a lump in the neck, and blood in saliva or phlegm.

Muscle strain. You can strain muscles in your throat by yelling, talking loudly or talking for long periods without rest.

Rarely, an infected area of tissue (abscess) in the throat or swelling of the small cartilage “lid” that covers the windpipe (epiglottitis) can cause a sore throat. Both can block the airway, creating a medical emergency.

Home remedies for a sore throat

You can treat most sore throats at home. Get plenty of rest to give your immune system a chance to fight the infection.

To relieve the pain of a sore throat:

  • Cool your throat by eating a cold treat like a popsicle or ice cream.
  • Suck on a piece of hard candy or a lozenge.
  • Turn on a cool mist humidifier to add moisture to the air.
  • Rest your voice until your throat feels better.
  • Gargle with a mixture of warm water and 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of salt.
  • Drink warm liquids that feel soothing to the throat, such as hot tea with honey, soup broth, or warm water with lemon. Herbal teas are especially soothing to a sore throat.

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Prevention

The best way to prevent sore throats is to avoid the germs that cause them and practice good hygiene. Follow these tips and teach your child to do the same:

Use alcohol-based hand sanitizers as an alternative to washing hands when soap and water aren’t available.

Avoid touching public phones or drinking fountains with your mouth.

Regularly clean and disinfect phones, doorknobs, light switches, remotes and computer keyboards. When you travel, clean phones, light switches and remotes in your hotel room.

Avoid close contact with people who are sick or have symptoms.

Wash your hands thoroughly and frequently for at least 20 seconds, especially after using the toilet, before and after eating, and after sneezing or coughing.

Avoid touching your face. Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth.

Avoid sharing food, drinking glasses or utensils.

Cough or sneeze into a tissue and throw it away, and then wash your hands. When necessary, sneeze into your elbow.

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