Everyone has experienced a sore throat from time to time.
Sore throats are often the first sign of an upper respiratory infection; however, it can also result from allergies, sinus infections, or environmental irritants.
Sore throats are also one of the most common illnesses in children since viral infections easily spread in school settings or daycare.
Additionally, people who share a home often pass viruses that cause sore throats to each other since the infection is easily transmissible.
With the exception of strep throat, which is a bacterial infection, most sore throats are viral infections which can’t be treated with antibiotics.
Most sore throats resolve on their own after about a week. In the meantime, there are things you can do to improve your throat pain and discomfort.
In this article, we’ll explore sore throat, and the symptoms and causes associated with it. We’ll also look at the medications you can take to relieve the pain of a sore throat and ways to prevent the infection from happening in the first place.
What is a Sore Throat?
A sore throat is irritation that causes pain and scratchiness in the back of your throat.
A sore throat can be a symptom of another illness and is often one of the first symptoms of a viral respiratory infection, such as a cold.
A sore throat may start with a tickling sensation in the back of your throat and become more painful and uncomfortable within a few hours.
It’s important to remember that sore throats are not always caused by illness, and can also be due to other factors, such as environmental irritants or allergies.
Broadly speaking, a sore throat is a symptom of pharyngitis, an inflammation of the pharynx.
Your doctor will diagnose pharyngitis by performing a laryngoscopy. The procedure involves placing a small hand mirror or an instrument known as a laryngoscope into your throat to look for any visible signs.
Symptoms of a sore throat
- Difficulty talking
- Runny nose
- Swollen glands
- Hoarse voice
- Swollen tonsils
- Trouble swallowing
- Loss of appetite
- Fever or chills
- Frequent throat clearing
Causes of a sore throat
Sore throat is most often to viral infections, such as those that cause colds, bronchitis, and the flu.
When a sore throat is accompanied by a runny nose, sneezing, low-grade fever of around 100°F (37.8°C) or so, or watery eyes, then it’s likely that the infection is infectious.
Mononucleosis, tonsillitis, chicken pox, and croup (in young children) are also associated with a sore throat.
Other, non-infectious causes of sore throat include:
- Environmental irritants, such as high winds, dry air, smoke, car exhaust, or air pollution
- Very spicy foods
- Alcoholic beverages
- Allergens, including pollen, animal dander, or household dust
- Acid reflux or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
- Muscle or vocal strain
- Cigarette smoking or secondhand smoke
- Prolonged mouth breathing, often associated with nasal congestion
Treating a Sore Throat
There are several medications and home remedies that you can try to relieve your sore throat.
You may need to try a few different remedies before finding the best treatment for you.
Before you take over-the-counter medications to relieve throat pain, make sure they don’t have harmful interactions with any prescription medications or other over-the-counter (OTC) drugs you take.
Consult your physician or your pharmacist if you have any questions. It’s important to always read the directions and follow the recommended dosage when taking OTC medication.
Commonly used OTC pain relievers include naproxen (Aleve), acetaminophen (Tylenol), and ibuprofen (Advil or Motrin).
If you have or have ever had liver disease, use acetaminophen (Tylenol) with caution. Those with high blood pressure or kidney problems should ask their doctor before taking ibuprofen.
Medications to soothe throat pain are best if they have eucalyptus or menthol for a cooling effect and benzocaine or phenol for numbing. You can opt for a throat spray, dissolving throat lozenge, or cough drops.
For sore throats due to postnasal drip, a decongestant such as pseudoephedrine (Sudafed) or loratadine (Claritin) will help dry up mucus and relieve throat pain.
Supplements, including vitamin C, the herb echinacea, and zinc are also helpful.
There are many natural or home remedies for sore throats using ingredients that are probably already in your pantry or refrigerator.
Warm salt water: Gargling with warm salt water a few times a day can help to reduce inflammation and loosen mucus. Use ¼ teaspoon of salt to ½ cup warm water for best results.
Warm tea: Warm tea (not hot) with honey is an old favorite that still works to bring comfort and gentle relief for sore throats. Choose decaffeinated herbal tea to encourage rest and sleep, such as chamomile or peppermint. Honey also has natural antibacterial properties to promote healing. Use two tablespoons per cup of tea. Never give honey to children under one year old.
Coconut oil: Coconut oil can be added to hot tea or dissolved in the mouth. It’s a natural lubricant for mucus membranes and tonsils. Use no more than two tablespoons a day.
Chicken soup: Chicken soup is not only comfort food; it’s also a great way to soothe pain and get lots of vitamins and minerals to boost the immune system and speed up the recovery time from a sore throat. If you don’t have time to prepare homemade soup, canned soup is fine. Plain chicken broth or vegetable broth will work if swallowing chicken or noodles is too painful.
Hot sauce: While it may seem counterintuitive, gargling with hot sauce or cayenne can speed up the healing process because the chemical capsaicin, found in peppers, can reduce inflammation. Use hot sauce carefully and in small amounts, as some people can be sensitive to it.
Herbal solutions: Herbal remedies or alternative products for a sore throat are available as teas, sprays, or lozenges. Common alternative treatments include slippery elm, licorice root, and marshmallow root.
Other Relief for Sore Throats
If you don’t have a humidifier, now might be a good time to invest in one.
A humidifier will add moisture to the air, relieving the dryness that aggravates sore throats.
A humidifier is especially helpful at night, since congestion can cause mouth breathing during sleep, drying out your throat and making the sore throat even more painful.
Cold water: Drink ice water or chew ice chips throughout the day. Ice water can numb the throat and provide temporary pain relief. Popsicles do the same thing. For children, consider pedialyte popsicles which are both soothing and hydrating.
Rest: Rest as much as possible to help the body heal. There is no better medicine than sleep, relaxation, and a calm environment.
Avoid acidic foods: Avoid acidic foods such as orange juice and tomato soup, which can cause acid reflux and irritate the tonsils. If you suspect acid reflux is causing your sore throat, chew on a few antacids to see if that reduces the pain. Don’t eat a few hours before bedtime to minimize acid reflux during the night.
Elevate your head when you sleep:. If you are comfortable sleeping in a recliner, that’s a good option, but if you prefer your bed, use a few pillows to prop yourself up. Your head should be above your chest for the best results.
Try not to talk too much. Resting your vocal cords will help to calm the irritation in your throat.
Risks of a Sore Throat
A viral sore throat or a sore throat due to allergies, environmental issues, or dry air poses little risk to a person’s long-term health.
Sore throats typically go away in a few days or a week on their own with minimal treatment and can usually be relieved with over-the-counter remedies, hot tea and honey, and some rest.
However, if you have multiple sore throats in a year and have severe symptoms including significant swelling of your tonsils, your tonsils may need to be removed.
When to See a Doctor
A sore throat could be strep throat or another illness that requires your doctor’s attention, and you may need a prescription medication.
Your doctor will conduct a throat culture to test a sample of the bacteria to determine what type of infection you have.
See your doctor right away if you have any of the following symptoms:
- Severe pain for longer than a week
- Difficulty breathing
- Difficulty swallowing
- Swelling of the throat
- White patches on tonsils
- High fever
- Swollen lymph nodes
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Frequently Asked Questions
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.
K Health has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.
Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD) (2018)
Soothing a Sore Throat (2013)
Using medication: The safe use of over-the-counter painkillers (2017)