What’s Causing My Sore Throat? Symptoms & Remedies

By Zina Semenovskaya, MD
Medically reviewed checkmarkMedically reviewed
April 23, 2020

When your throat becomes sore, it can be hard to take your mind off it, as the throat is involved in many of our daily activities, from eating and drinking to talking and breathing. A sore throat can occur with no other symptoms, or may be accompanied by a variety of symptoms ranging from cough and headache to fever and nausea. While a severe sore throat can sometimes be a sign of a more serious condition, a mild sore throat with no fever will generally resolve on its own.

What Is a Sore Throat?

A sore throat is irritation of the throat which may feel like scratchiness, burning, rawness, dryness, or pain when swallowing.

The most common form of sore throat is called pharyngitis, or inflammation of the pharynx, which is located at the back of your throat. This is commonly associated with a scratchy feeling in the throat and pain or difficulty swallowing.

Two other common forms of sore throat are:

  • Tonsillitis: swelling of the tonsils, located at the back of your mouth
  • Laryngitis: swelling of the larynx (voice box or vocal cords)

All forms of sore throat may be characterized by a resting sense of pain, dryness, or rawness that lasts for days; or by more intense pain when eating, swallowing, speaking, or coughing.

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Sore Throat Symptoms

Symptoms of sore throat may include:

  • A sensation of scratchiness or rawness in the throat
  • Pain that is aggravated by swallowing or talking
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Sore, swollen glands
  • Swollen tonsils
  • White patches on the tonsils
  • Hoarseness, loss of voice, or voice change due to swelling of glands/tonsils
  • Fever
  • Loss of appetite
  • Bad breath

In the case of infections, sore throat may be accompanied by symptoms such as:

Sore Throat Causes

A sore throat is often caused by a virus, such as the common cold or flu (influenza). In these cases, you will generally experience other symptoms of the viral infection, such as coughing and sneezing, watery eyes, a runny nose, or fever.

Other viral illnesses that can cause a sore throat include:

Another common cause of sore throat is strep throat, a bacterial infection that generally spreads when someone comes into contact with saliva or nasal secretions from an infected person. Strep throat is easily treated with antibiotics, though it’s important to note that antibiotics don’t help in cases of viral infections, like a cold or flu.

In some cases, sore throat can be a symptom of tonsillitis. This occurs when the tonsils become infected or inflamed, resulting in pain at the back of the throat and trouble swallowing due to the swelling of the tonsils.

A sore throat may also be caused by:

  • Allergies: A sore throat can be a symptom of an allergic reaction. This is most commonly experienced by people with allergies to dust, pollen, mold, and pet dander. In some cases, these allergens can also trigger postnasal drip, which will further inflame the throat.
  • Environmental irritants: Tobacco smoke, chemicals, or other pollution in the air can result in a sore throat. Indoor air that’s excessively dry can cause a rough, scratchy feeling in the throat. Other factors that can contribute to a sore throat include drinking alcoholic beverages and eating spicy foods.
  • Vocal muscle strain: Yelling, speaking loudly, singing, or otherwise using your voice for extended periods of time without ample rest can strain the throat and vocal muscles, resulting in soreness and hoarseness.
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD): Also referred to as chronic acid reflux, GERD results in frequently recurring heartburn symptoms due to stomach acid backing up into the esophagus. Effects of this may include throat discomfort and pain, hoarseness, or the sensation of a lump in the throat. You may also experience burning in the throat when stomach acid is pushed up into the esophagus.

Risk Factors and Complications

While anyone can experience soreness in the throat, there are some factors that will make you more susceptible to frequent or severe infections.

You may be at a higher risk for developing a sore throat if:

  • You smoke tobacco products or are often exposed to secondhand smoke
  • You are allergic to dust, mold, pet dander, or pollen
  • You suffer from ongoing or frequent sinus infections
  • You have a weakened immune system for any reason, including stress, fatigue, diabetes, HIV, or medical treatments such as chemotherapy

Children between the ages of 3-15 are more likely to contract strep throat than adults. If you think that you may have strep throat, it’s important to see a doctor promptly for evaluation and treatment. If left untreated, strep throat can sometimes develop into a more serious illness, such as pneumonia, bronchitis, or rheumatic fever—a disease that impacts the heart.

Diagnosing a Sore Throat

Diagnosing the cause of a sore throat requires a physical examination. Your doctor will likely feel the outside of your neck to check for swollen glands and shine a light into your mouth to look for redness, swelling, and white spots inside the throat and on your tonsils.

If you have a high fever, swollen tonsils with white spots (called “exudates”) and swollen lymph nodes in the neck, you may have a bacterial infection, such as strep throat. If it is uncertain, your doctor may conduct a strep test to confirm the diagnosis. A strep test is a fairly quick procedure—your doctor will swab the back of your throat with a cotton swab and send it to the lab, and the results will generally be available the same day.

If your strep test is negative but you’re experiencing other symptoms such as runny nose, fever, sneezing, coughing, or body chills, you may have a viral infection such as the cold or flu.

How to Treat a Sore Throat

The approach to treating a sore throat is dependent on whether the cause is viral or bacterial.

Bacterial illnesses, such as strep throat, are treated with antibiotics like penicillin and amoxicillin, which kill off the harmful bacteria. Antibiotics for sore throat may be taken by mouth, in pill form, or given as a shot. If you contract strep throat, it will likely ease within 2-3 days of starting antibiotic treatment. Because strep throat is contagious, you should avoid contact with others for at least 24 hours after you begin taking the antibiotics.

Tonsilitis can be bacterial or viral in nature. In the case of bacterial infections, tonsillitis can be treated with antibiotics. If the infection is viral, you must simply allow the virus to run its course. Antibiotics for sore throat only work to fend off bacterial infections, so they cannot be used to treat viral tonsillitis or other viral infections like the cold or flu.

Home remedies for sore throat

A sore throat caused by a virus will resolve on its own, but home remedies may be helpful in easing any pain or discomfort.

Home remedies for sore throat include:

  • Gargling with warm saltwater to reduce inflammation
  • Drinking warm beverages such as herbal tea with honey, warm water with lemon, or soup broth
  • Taking over-the-counter pain relievers, such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen
  • Decongestants and other cold medications if post-nasal drip is a contributing factor
  • Lozenges or sore throat sprays to soothe sore throat and temporarily numb the pain
  • A cool mist humidifier to loosen congestion and soothe sore throat

In addition to these home remedies, getting plenty of rest and staying well hydrated is critical to allow your immune system to fight off the infection and to optimize your recovery.

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How to Prevent a Sore Throat

Preventing a sore throat involves common approaches used in avoiding catching a cold, flu, or similar infection.

To avoid contracting a sore throat, you should:

  • Wash your hands regularly or use alcohol-based hand sanitizers
  • Avoid sharing utensils or food and beverages
  • Cough or sneeze into a tissue or into your elbow
  • Avoid direct mouth contact with public drinking fountains
  • Sanitize remote controls, computer keyboards, door handles, and other objects that are frequently used and touched
  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick

Prevention of tonsillitis includes all of the same methods. If you contract tonsillitis multiple times in close succession, your doctor may recommend surgery—a tonsillectomy—to remove the tonsils to prevent your recurrent symptoms.

When to See a Doctor

If you are experiencing cold and flu symptoms with a mild sore throat, you likely don’t need to make a trip to your doctor’s office. You can generally treat a cold or flu with over-the-counter medications and home remedies, and in these cases, a sore throat will usually resolve within one week or less.

If you believe you have the symptoms of strep throat or anything other than a common cold or flu, you should visit your doctor to get a strep test and a prescription for the necessary antibiotics to treat it. A bacterial infection will need to be treated with antibiotics to prevent complications.

Make an appointment with your doctor if your sore throat doesn’t ease after 2-3 days and you experience any of the following symptoms:

  • Fever that’s well above normal body temperature (higher than 103° F/39.4° C)
  • Difficulty breathing or swallowing
  • Involuntary or excessive drooling
  • Pain in your joints or muscles
  • Stiffness in the neck
  • Blood in your saliva
  • Swelling or lump in the neck or face region
  • Rash
  • Chronic hoarseness (lasting longer than two weeks)

How K Health Can Help

In order to treat your sore throat, you first need to understand if it’s viral or bacterial.

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K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

Zina Semenovskaya, MD

Dr. Semenovskaya specializes in emergency medicine, and received her medical degree from Weill Cornell Medical College. She is currently the medical director at Remote Emergency Medicine Consulting, LLC and splits her time working clinically as an emergency medicine attending in California and Alaska. She is the first of our doctors to be fluent in Russian.

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