Skip to content

    Cold, Flu, & Cough Health Center

    Font Size
    A
    A
    A

    Getting to the Bottom of a Sore Throat

    By Jen Uscher
    WebMD Feature

    First it's that rough feeling, like you swallowed a bit of sandpaper. You know what's next: a sore throat. Is it the start of a cold, strep -- or something else?

    "For most sore throats, you probably don't need to see a doctor. You can treat it with over-the-counter remedies, take time off from work, and rest," says Jeffrey A. Linder, MD, MPH. He's an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.

    Recommended Related to Cold & Flu

    Prevent Flu: Go to Work or Stay in Bed?

    It's a problem: Kids and adults going to work when they should stay home. Around any school or office, you hear them coughing and sneezing. Yet experts' flu prevention advice is clear: Stay home when you are sick. The problem is, "With a lot of flu viruses, people can be infectious before they have symptoms," says Erica Brownfield, MD, a professor of internal medicine at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta. In fact, you're spewing flu germs even before you realize you're sick, she tells...

    Read the Prevent Flu: Go to Work or Stay in Bed? article > >

    Here are some of the most common reasons people get a sore throat and tips for when to call your doctor.

    Cold or Flu?

    Most sore throats are caused by viral infections, such as a cold or flu. Often you’ll have other symptoms like a runny or stuffy nose, sneezing, cough, a mild fever, and fatigue.

    It can be hard to tell the difference between a cold and flu, but the flu tends to cause worse symptoms, like high fever and muscle aches.

    If your sore throat is from a virus, antibiotics won’t help. Instead, gargle with warm salt water and use over-the-counter treatments like lozenges and sprays.

    The Dreaded Strep

    Strep throat is an infection caused by bacteria. Symptoms can include throat pain, white patches on your tonsils, swollen lymph nodes in your neck, and fever. When you have strep throat, you usually don’t have a runny nose or cough.

    Anyone can get strep throat, but children between the ages of 5 and 15 tend to get it most often. In adults, only 10% of sore throats are caused by strep, says Linder.

    To find out if you have it, your doctor may swab the back of your throat to do a rapid strep test. If it's positive, your doctor will prescribe an antibiotic.

    Today on WebMD

    hot toddy
    15 tips to help you feel better.
    man sneezing into elbow
    Do echinacea and vitamin C really help a cold?
     
    teen girl coughing
    Get a good night’s rest with these remedies.
    elder berry
    Eat these to fight colds, flu, and more.
     
    Natural Cold Flu Remedies Slideshow
    Slideshow
    cold weather
    VIDEO
     
    Allergy And Sinus Symptom Evaluator
    Article
    Boy holding ear
    Slideshow
     
    woman receiving vaccine shot
    Article
    woman with fever
    Article
     
    Waking up from sleep
    Article
    woman with sore throat
    Slideshow