Sore Throat


What causes a sore throat? Sore throats can be caused by many things. Viruses (like those that cause colds) can lead to a sore throat. Bacteria can also cause a sore throat, as can smoking, breathing polluted air, drinking alcohol, and hay fever and other allergies. Breathing through the mouth can produce throat dryness and soreness. Sinus drainage may cause a sore throat.

What can I do at home for a sore throat? Generally, sore throats must run their course (Exception: Strep throat will be addressed below). Salt water gargles, hard candies, sprays (for example, Chloraseptic) and lozenges can provide temporary pain relief.  A humidifier may be helpful in relieving symptoms, especially in sore throats caused by mouth breathing and dry air. Acetaminophen or ibuprofen may help control the pain.

What is Strep throat and why is it different? Strep throat is caused by the Streptococcus bacteria, which is the same bacteria that causes rheumatic fever. Only 5%-10% of adult sore throats are caused by strep while about 15%-40% of sore throats in children are related to strep. For this reason, many health care professionals will recommend a "rapid strep" test for a patient with a sore throat. The "rapid strep" test can usually be done in the office and takes 15-20 minutes. If the result is negative, it is often followed with a strep culture. If either of these is positive, the sore throat is generally treated with penicillin or another antibiotic.

A major objective of treating Strep throat is to prevent the development of rheumatic fever, a serious illness that can cause joint pain and heart valve damage. However, antibiotics do not necessarily hasten the resolution of the sore throat itself and antibiotics are of no help for a sore throat unless it is found to be caused by strep. Another strep related illness, scarlet fever, can cause a rash, but will not cause heart injury or joint pain.

When should I seek medical care for a sore throat?

  1. If you have been in contact with someone with strep throat and you have a sore throat, it is reasonable to have a strep test done.
  2. If your sore throat is not associated with cold symptoms or is associated with a fever, swollen "glands" (lymph nodes), or white patches on the back of your throat, you should have a strep test done.
  3. Any sore throat that has a sudden onset and is associated with a fever should be seen by a health care worker.
  4. Pain with swallowing is to be expected with a sore throat. However, if you are having trouble swallowing liquids, you should be examined.
  5. If your sore throat persists for more than a week, medical attention should be sought.
  6. If you have a sore throat and the front of your neck is sore, you should be seen by a health care professional.