Sore throat is a common condition that can cause discomfort and pain in the throat. It can be caused by a variety of factors, ranging from viral or bacterial infections to environmental irritants. Most sore throats are not serious and pass within three to seven days without the need for medical treatment. Over-the-counter painkillers such as paracetamol can usually relieve the symptoms of a sore throat.
Symptoms of a sore throat
The symptoms of sore throat can vary depending on the underlying cause. Common symptoms of sore throat include:
- Pain or discomfort in the throat, especially when swallowing or speaking
- Dryness or scratchiness in the throat
- Redness or swelling of the throat
- Swollen lymph nodes in the neck
- Fever or chills
- Hoarse voice
- Nausea or vomiting
- Difficulty breathing or swallowing (in severe cases)
Causes of a sore throat
- the common cold,
- influenza (flu), and
- glandular fever.
The infection that causes sore throats can cause inflammation and swelling in:
- your oropharynx (the area at the back of your throat), and
- your tonsils (the two lumps of tissue either side of your throat).
An infection of the tonsils is known as tonsillitis.
Possible causes of infection include the bacteria known as streptococcus (this condition is often called ‘strep throat’).
Less commonly, sore throats can have non-infectious causes. These include:
- irritation caused by cigarette smoke, or alcohol,
- gastro-oesophageal reflux (a condition that causes acid to leak upwards from the stomach into the gullet),
- hay fever, and
- in very rare cases, cancer.
Sore throat can affect anyone, regardless of age or gender. However, some people may be at higher risk of developing sore throat than others. Here are some factors that may increase the risk of sore throat:
- Age: Children and teenagers are more susceptible to sore throat than adults.
- Weakened immune system: People with weakened immune systems, such as those with HIV or undergoing chemotherapy, are at higher risk of developing sore throat.
- Exposure to irritants: People who are exposed to environmental irritants, such as tobacco smoke or pollution, are at higher risk of developing sore throat.
- Allergies: People with allergies are more likely to experience sore throat as a symptom.
Diagnosing a sore throat
Treating a sore throat
However, you should not take aspirin or ibuprofen if you have (or have had in the past) stomach problems, such as a peptic ulcer or if you have liver or kidney problems. Paracetamol should be used instead.
Children under 16 years of age should also not take aspirin. Instead, paracetamol or ibuprofen should be used.
Analgesics should be taken regularly for 48 hours after the onset of your symptoms. However, you should not exceed the recommended or prescribed dose.
If you or someone in your family has a sore throat, the tips outlined below may also help.
- Avoid food or drink that is too hot because this could irritate your throat.
- Eating cool, soft food and drinking cool or warm liquids may help to relieve symptoms.
- Adults and older children may find that sucking lozenges, hard sweets or ice cubes can provide additional relief from their symptoms.
- Avoid smoking and smoky environments.
- Regularly gargling a mouthwash of warm, salty water may help to reduce any swelling or pain.
Typically, antibiotics are not necessary for treating sore throat because they do not usually alleviate symptoms or hasten recovery. Only in cases where your doctor suspects a bacterial infection will they prescribe antibiotics.
Complications of sore throat
Sore throat is usually a self-limiting condition that resolves without complications. However, in some cases, untreated or severe sore throat can lead to serious complications. Here are some of the possible complications of sore throat:
- Difficulty breathing or swallowing: In severe cases of sore throat, inflammation or swelling in the throat can cause difficulty breathing or swallowing, which can be life-threatening.
- Spread of infection: Untreated bacterial infections, such as strep throat, can lead to the spread of infection to other parts of the body, such as the lungs, sinuses, or skin.
- Rheumatic fever: Untreated strep throat can lead to rheumatic fever, a serious condition that can cause damage to the heart, joints, and other organs.
- Kidney damage: Untreated strep throat can also lead to a condition called post-streptococcal glomerulonephritis, which can cause inflammation and damage to the kidneys.
- Abscess: In rare cases, a bacterial infection in the throat can lead to the formation of an abscess, a pocket of pus that can cause difficulty swallowing and breathing.
- Guillain-Barre Syndrome (GBS): This is a rare but serious complication of sore throat caused by an overreaction of the immune system, which can cause weakness, numbness, and tingling in the extremities and difficulty breathing.
- Peritonsillar abscess: A peritonsillar abscess is a complication of tonsillitis where an abscess forms near the tonsils. It can cause severe pain and difficulty swallowing.
Preventing a sore throat
While it is not always possible to completely prevent sore throat, there are some steps you can take to reduce your risk of developing the condition. Here are some ways to prevent sore throat:
- Practice good hygiene: Wash your hands frequently and avoid touching your face to reduce the spread of germs that can cause sore throat.
- Avoid close contact with sick individuals: Avoid close contact with people who have a sore throat or other signs of illness to reduce the risk of infection.
- Stay hydrated: Drinking plenty of fluids can help keep your throat moist and reduce the risk of irritation and inflammation.
- Use a humidifier: Using a humidifier can help keep the air in your home moist, which can reduce irritation and inflammation in the throat.
- Quit smoking: Smoking and exposure to secondhand smoke can irritate the throat and increase the risk of sore throat.
- Avoid irritants: Try to avoid exposure to environmental irritants such as pollution, chemical fumes, and allergens, which can cause sore throat.
- Stay healthy: A healthy lifestyle, including regular exercise, a balanced diet, and adequate sleep, can help boost your immune system and reduce your risk of developing sore throat.
- Get vaccinated: Vaccines, such as the flu vaccine, can help reduce your risk of contracting illnesses that can cause sore throat.
Sore throat remedies
There are several remedies that can help alleviate sore throat symptoms and provide relief. Here are some home remedies that you can try:
- Saltwater gargle: Gargling with warm salt water can help reduce inflammation and relieve sore throat symptoms. Dissolve 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon of salt in a glass of warm water and gargle with the solution for 30 seconds before spitting it out.
- Throat lozenges or hard candy: Sucking on throat lozenges or hard candy can help soothe the throat and relieve soreness and discomfort.
- Hydration: Staying well-hydrated by drinking plenty of fluids can help keep the throat moist and reduce irritation and inflammation.
- Humidifiers: Using a humidifier in the bedroom can help keep the air moist, which can reduce irritation and inflammation in the throat.
- Over-the-counter pain relievers: Over-the-counter pain relievers, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen, can help reduce pain and inflammation associated with sore throat.
- Tea with honey and lemon: Drinking warm tea with honey and lemon can help soothe the throat and provide relief from sore throat symptoms.
- Bone broth: Drinking bone broth can help boost the immune system and reduce inflammation in the throat.
- Ginger tea: Drinking ginger tea can help reduce inflammation and provide relief from sore throat symptoms.
- Apple cider vinegar: Gargling with a mixture of apple cider vinegar and water can help reduce inflammation and kill bacteria that cause sore throat.
- Rest: Getting plenty of rest and avoiding strenuous activity can help the body recover from a viral or bacterial infection that is causing sore throat.
It is important to note that if sore throat symptoms persist or worsen, or if you develop any severe or unusual symptoms, it is important to seek medical attention.
Can allergies cause sore throat?
Yes, allergies can cause sore throat. Allergies occur when the immune system reacts to a foreign substance, such as pollen, dust, or pet dander, and produces an inflammatory response. The inflammation can affect the lining of the nose, sinuses, and throat, leading to a sore throat.
Common allergy symptoms include sneezing, runny nose, nasal congestion, itchy eyes, and postnasal drip. These symptoms can also contribute to sore throat. In some cases, allergies can also lead to other complications, such as sinusitis or ear infections.
It is important to identify and manage allergies to prevent and alleviate sore throat and other symptoms. If you suspect that allergies may be causing your sore throat, it is recommended to see a healthcare provider or doctor for proper diagnosis and treatment. Treatment may include allergy medications, such as antihistamines or nasal steroids, or allergen immunotherapy (allergy shots).
I keep getting a sore throat that comes and goes
If you are experiencing a sore throat that comes and goes, it could be due to a number of factors. Some possible causes of recurrent sore throat include:
- Viral infections: Some viral infections, such as the common cold, can cause recurrent sore throat.
- Bacterial infections: Bacterial infections, such as strep throat, can also cause recurrent sore throat. These infections may require antibiotics to treat.
- Allergies: Allergies can cause recurrent sore throat, especially if you are allergic to environmental allergens such as pollen, dust, or pet dander.
- Acid reflux: Acid reflux can cause irritation and inflammation in the throat, leading to recurrent sore throat.
- Dry air: Dry air can cause the throat to become dry and irritated, which can lead to recurrent sore throat.
- Smoking: Smoking or exposure to secondhand smoke can irritate the throat and cause recurrent sore throat.
- Tonsil stones: Tonsil stones are small calcified deposits that can form in the crevices of the tonsils, leading to recurrent sore throat.
If you are experiencing recurrent sore throat, it is important to see a healthcare provider or doctor for proper diagnosis and treatment.