A sore throat occurs when your pharynx, the back of your throat, becomes inflamed. The common sore throat is caused by a virus — like the flu or the common cold — and usually goes away in a few days. Strep throat is caused by a bacteria called Streptococcus pyogenes and should be treated with antibiotics prescribed by your doctor.
In areas where the summers are warm and winters are cold, viral sore throats usually peak in the winter and early spring, when people are mostly inside. Viruses are spread by droplets in the air from sneezes and coughs. Viral sore throats go away on their own for most healthy people.
Other causes of sore throat include:
- Acid reflux
- Allergies to mold, dust, dander, and pollen
- Dry indoor air
- Irritants like air pollution, chemicals, smoking, spicy foods, and drinking alcohol
- Muscle strain from yelling or singing loudly for extended periods
- Throat cancer
Sore throat can also be a symptom of COVID-19, but it is not as common as a fever or a cough. If you are experiencing any symptoms of COVID-19 or have come in contact with someone confirmed to have COVID-19, you should get tested and self-quarantine until you get the results.
In adults, the most common symptom of a sore throat is throat pain. Other symptoms may include:
- Aches and pains
- Inflamed tonsils
- Runny Nose
- Swallowing difficulty
- Swollen glands
Children with sore throat may also experience:
- Bloody phlegm
- Breathing difficulty
- Joint pain or swelling
Sore Throat Remedies and Treatments
There are many ways to treat and ease the symptoms of the common viral sore throat. Because it’s caused by a virus, antibiotics will not help the common sore throat — but it will help strep throat. For mild bouts of sore throat, you can try the following home remedies.
Rest and Hydration
Get plenty of rest and sleep. You should drink a lot of fluids because they prevent dehydration and keep your throat moist. Stick to comforting beverages like a simple broth, soup, warm water, or caffeine-free tea with honey. Avoid alcohol or any caffeinated drinks like coffee, because they can dehydrate you.
Over-the-counter Pain Relievers
You can use a numbing throat spray or over-the-counter pain relievers, like ibuprofen or acetaminophen, to keep you comfortable as you rest. If your sore throat is caused by allergies, you can take over-the-counter antihistamines to decongest your nose and get rid of postnasal drip that may be irritating your throat.
While you need to check with your doctor before relying on alternative medicines such as herbal teas or lozenges, many of them can be bought over the counter. You must find out if there are any interactions with prescription medications or possible risks due to your medical history before you take any herbal remedy. Common alternative medicines for sore throat contain licorice root, marshmallow root, and slippery elm.
Mix 1/4 teaspoon of salt with a cup of water and gargle. You can do this when your throat feels itchy or painful. By using salt, you’re pulling out fluids from your throat tissues, which helps wash the virus out. It may also loosen mucus that needs to come out.
Sucking on Ice Chips or Lozenges
You can suck on ice chips or popsicles to relieve the pain and coughing from a sore throat. Over-the-counter lozenges and cough drops work, too — but they’re not recommended for children under the age of two.
Purified and Humidified Air
Use a humidifier in the room where you are resting. It will prevent dry air from irritating your sore throat. You can also sit in a steamy bathroom for several minutes at a time. An air purifier may also help, as people with a sore throat should also avoid airborne irritants like cigarette smoke or some cleaning products.
When to See a Doctor
You should see a doctor if you suspect you are dealing with strep throat, especially if you have the following symptoms:
- Lymph nodes that are swollen
- Pain and difficulty when swallowing
- Red spots on the roof of your mouth
- Sore throat that started quickly
- Tonsils that are red and swollen
Your doctor can test you for strep throat using a simple test. A swab is used to collect a sample from the back of your throat, then sent to a lab for testing. If it is a bacterial infection causing your sore throat, your doctor will prescribe a 10-day course of antibiotics. It is important to take the full course of antibiotics even if you start to feel better after only a few days.
Remedies for Children
Some over-the-counter medications are not recommended for children under certain ages. Always check the label.
Never give aspirin to a child. Only acetaminophen should be given to children under 6 months. Acetaminophen or ibuprofen are fine for children 6 months or older.
Do not give any cough or cold medicine to a child under 4 years of age. For children over 4 check with the child’s doctor if the medication is safe and what dosage is appropriate for the child’s size and age.
Seek emergency care if you or your child are having problems breathing or swallowing.