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Sore throats: Causes, symptoms and treatment

Sore throats are common and can happen for loads of reasons, from winter dryness to common viruses to too much cheering on the sidelines. (We hear you, 12th Man.)

While an irritated and inflamed throat may be painful and annoying, it’s most often treatable at home and will clear up within a few days. But when throat pain is severe and lingering or comes with additional symptoms, it could be a sign of something that requires medical treatment.


What causes a sore throat?

The most common causes of a sore throat are viruses. Typical viral infections that cause a sore throat include:

  • Colds and the flu. That back-of-the-throat itch is often the first hint of a cold or the flu. It’s a sign that white blood cells and antibodies are working to fight infection, which can cause irritation and inflammation.

  • Hand, foot and mouth disease. This mild and highly contagious viral infection, common in young children, usually begins in the throat. Additional symptoms include a fever, headache, and a rash on the hands and feet.

  • Mononucleosis. A severe sore throat is a common symptom of mono, which can also cause fatigue, fever, headache, and swollen lymph nodes and tonsils.

  • COVID-19. While symptoms and their severity can vary person to person, a sore throat is a common symptom of the coronavirus.

 Most viruses will go away within a week to 10 days, although symptoms of mono can sometimes linger for a few months.

Other causes of sore throat include:

  • Bacterial infection. Strep throat, an infection of the throat that causes inflammation and pain, is caused by a type of bacteria called group A streptococcus and is treated with antibiotics. The infection is most common in children between the ages of 5 and 15, although anyone can get it.

  • Tonsillitis. Inflammation of the two oval-shaped pads of tissue in the back of the throat is typically caused by viral infections. Though less common, tonsillitis can also be from a bacterial infection, such as strep throat.

  • Allergies. Allergies to pollen, dust mites, pets and mold can make your throat scratchy and dry. Post-nasal drip, a byproduct of allergies, can also cause throat irritation.

  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). When stomach acid and juices flow upward, they can cause pain or a burning feeling in the back of the throat.

  • Vocal overuse or strain. Yelling, talking for long periods without rest, or singing without using proper form can take a toll on the throat and vocal cords.

  • Smoking or exposure to other irritants. Smoking and exposure to secondhand smoke and other environmental irritants can cause throat pain. Spicy foods and overly hot liquids are also common culprits.

  • Excessive dryness. Dry air can leave your throat feeling rough and scratchy. Sleeping with your mouth open can also cause a parched, dry throat.

There are some less common and more serious causes of throat pain, including:

  • Abscesses, or pockets of pus, around the tonsils.
  • Infection of the epiglottis, the small flap that covers the entrance to the voice box and windpipe.
  • Tumors.


What are the symptoms of a sore throat?

Typical signs and symptoms of a sore throat may include:

  • Pain or scratchiness in the throat.
  • Pain that worsens when swallowing.
  • Red and swollen tonsils. You may also see white patches or streaks of pus.
  • Tiny red spots on the roof of the mouth.
  • Swollen lymph nodes in the front of the neck.
  • A hoarse voice.

Sore throat symptoms may vary depending on the cause. Pain can range from mild to moderate to severe and can occur in the back of the mouth, on your tonsils or down one or both sides of the throat.

Depending on the cause, sore throats can also be accompanied by other symptoms, including:

  • Fever.
  • Cough.
  • Runny nose and sneezing.
  • Body aches.
  • Headache.
  • Nausea and vomiting.

How can I treat a sore throat at home?

While there’s no medicine or magic elixir that can cure a sore throat, there are some things you can try at home to reduce your discomfort, including:

  • Use over-the-counter pain relievers. Acetaminophen (Tylenol), naproxen (Aleve) or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) can help take the edge off throat pain and other symptoms.  

  • Treat nasal symptoms. A decongestant or antihistamine may relieve sinus congestion and post-nasal drip.

  • Get plenty of fluids. It might hurt to swallow, but it’s important to stay hydrated. Warm fluids, such as water, tea or broth, may go down easier.

  • Gargle with salt water. Dissolve 1 teaspoon of table salt in 8 ounces of warm water, gargle for a few seconds and spit out. Repeat a few times.

  • Try throat spray or lozenges. Products with anti-inflammatory or “numbing” ingredients may provide temporary relief.

  • Use a humidifier or cool-mist vaporizer to add moisture to air. Steam from a hot shower can also help.

  • Drink honey with a warm glass of water or tea. With its natural antibacterial properties, honey can relieve pain and reduce inflammation.

    NOTE: You should never give honey to a child under the age of 1. Honey occasionally contains bacteria that can produce toxins in a baby’s intestines.

How long will a sore throat last?

Sore throats can be acute (lasting only a few days) or chronic (lingering until their underlying cause is diagnosed and treated.)

In general, most sore throats should resolve on their own within 3 to 10 days.


When should I see a doctor for a sore throat?

If your sore throat doesn’t improve or gets worse, it’s a good idea to get it checked out by a medical provider. Indigo Health can help.

From sore throats to colds and flu to sprains and strains, Indigo treats most minor illnesses and injuries. And we make it refreshingly easy and convenient to get the urgent care you need, when you need it.

Simply walk into or book an online appointment at one of our convenient neighborhood locations, or schedule an Indigo online care visit from the comfort of home or wherever you are. We’re here 8 am to 8 pm every day, including holidays and weekends.

One of our friendly providers will assess your symptoms, offer treatment recommendations and provide a prescription, if needed. All our clinics offer rapid strep testing, giving you results within minutes. If necessary, we’ll refer you to a higher level of care.

If you or your child experience any of the following symptoms with a sore throat, you should seek treatment from your nearest emergency department:

  • Difficulty breathing or swallowing.
  • A fever over 101o
  • Joint paint.
  • A rash.
  • Difficulty breathing.
  • Blood in the saliva or phlegm.
  • A lump in the throat.

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