Sore throat (pharyngitis) is a symptom that is usually caused by a viral or bacterial infection.
Strep throat is a specific kind of sore throat caused by group A Streptococcus (GAS) bacterium.
If sore throat is caused by a virus, there is no specific treatment. Treatment is aimed at relieving symptoms.
To quickly relieve symptoms of a sore throat caused by a virus, treatment may include:
- Throat sprays that contain topical anesthetics (e.g., benzocaine, phenol) to help relieve sore throat pain
- Lozenges (cough drops) containing topical anesthetics can ease throat pain and relieve dryness
- Lozenges are not recommended for young children; they can be a choking hazard
- Drink plenty of liquids to stay hydrated
- Sip warm beverages (e.g., tea with honey, chicken soup, warm water with lemon)
- Drink really cold beverages
- Eat cold or frozen desserts (e.g., ice cream, popsicles)
- Use a humidifier or take a steamy shower to help moisten the throat
- Over-the-counter pain relievers
- Salt-water gargle
- Combine 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon salt per 1 cup warm water
- This may not provide immediate relief but helps loosen mucus and can relieve pain
- Take a decongestant
- May be helpful if sore throat is caused by breathing through the mouth due to nasal congestion
Strep throat is a bacterial infection that is treated with antibiotics, usually penicillin or amoxicillin. If people are allergic to penicillin, other antibiotics may be used. If antibiotics are prescribed, take the entire dose as prescribed, even if you feel better before you have finished all the medication.
If sore throat is due to gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD):
- Avoid acidic foods and drinks such as soda, fried foods, and citrus fruits
- Don’t eat for at least an hour before bed
- Don’t lie down after eating
- Elevate the head of the bed
- Take antacids
Other sore throat remedies include:
- Don’t smoke
- Rest your voice, if sore throat is caused by yelling or cheering
- Avoid allergens or use antihistamines, if sore throat is caused by allergies
- Change your toothbrush
- Bacteria can accumulate on toothbrush bristles, which may cause illness
What Are Symptoms of Sore Throat?
Symptoms of a sore throat may include:
- Throat pain
- Painful swallowing
- Difficulty swallowing
- Swollen, red tonsils
- Swollen glands in the neck
- Scratchy sensation in the throat
- Hoarseness or voice changes
Most cases of sore throat are caused by viruses, usually viruses that cause upper respiratory infections such as the common cold. Cold symptoms that may accompany a sore throat include:
- Runny or stuffy nose
- Feeling unwell (malaise)
- Soreness in the roof of the mouth
- Eye irritation or redness
About 10% of cases of sore throat are strep throat, caused by group A Streptococcus (GAS) bacterium. Additional symptoms of strep throat include:
- Sore throat that may come on quickly
- White patches of pus on the side or back of the throat
- Fever (temperature greater than 100.4ºF, or 38ºC)
- Tiny, red spots on the roof of the mouth
- Streaks of pus on the tonsils
- Stomach pain
- Rash (scarlet fever)
- No cough, runny nose, or irritation/redness of the eyes
What Causes Sore Throat?
Sore throat is most often caused by viral or bacterial infections.
Viruses that can cause sore throat include:
- Common cold viruses
- Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19)
- Mononucleosis (“mono”)
The most common bacterial cause of sore throat is group A Streptococcus (GAS) bacterium, which is responsible for strep throat.
Other causes of sore throat can include:
- Vocal trauma such as shouting too much, cheering, or straining the voice
- Acid reflux
- Environmental irritants (pollution)
- Smoking or vaping
- Inhaling harsh chemicals, such as cleaners or gasoline
- Use of asthma inhalers
- Medical problems
- Abnormal growths on the vocal cords
- Muscle disorders affecting the voice box
- Throat cancer
How Is Sore Throat Diagnosed?
The cause of a sore throat is diagnosed with a patient history and physical examination of the throat.
If strep throat is suspected, tests may include:
- A rapid strep test: This involves swabbing the throat and running a test on the swab to see if strep bacteria are present in the patient’s throat. Results are usually available in about 15 minutes.
- A throat culture: In some cases, the rapid strep test results are negative but a doctor may still suspect strep infection is present. In this case, a throat culture swab may be obtained. This test can take 2-3 days to yield results but it is more accurate than a rapid strep test.
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