It can be an annoying little tickle or a sign that your body is fighting something off. Viral infections, bacterial infections, allergies, injuries – all can cause one. Doctors often call it pharyngitis, but you know exactly what you have: a sore throat.
Sore throats are painful, persistent and no fun at all. But your symptoms can help clue you in to what may be going on with your body. We’ll dive into what sore throats are, what causes them and what symptoms to keep your eyes on. Plus, we’ll give you some time-tested remedies, medications and treatments, as well as what will signal a call to your doctor.
Most of the time, with a little self-care, a bit of over-the-counter medication and some help from your doctor, your sore throat will get better fast.
What is a sore throat, or pharyngitis?
Also known as your pharynx, your throat does a lot of work. It’s the tube that takes food down from your mouth to your esophagus and stomach. It’s also the route air travels from your nose and mouth through to your windpipe and lungs. There’s plenty that happens in your throat and, most of the time, it all works without you even thinking about it. But since your throat is at the center of so much, it’s one of the first places where you can notice that something’s wrong with your body.
The lining of your throat is pretty sensitive – anything that doesn’t belong there will irritate and inflame it, whether it’s mucus coming down from your nose, acid coming up from your stomach or irritants in the air you breathe. The resulting irritation gives you that dry, painful feeling that makes it hard to swallow and hurt to talk or even move. And until that irritation is gone and your throat starts to heal, that soreness and pain can make you miserable.
A big thing to keep in mind is that a sore throat isn’t a disease or condition on its own. Instead, it’s usually a sign that something else is wrong. When a sore throat happens, looking at your other symptoms will help you and your doctor zero in on what larger illness may be causing it. Once you know why you have a sore throat, you and your doctor can take the right course of action to get you feeling better.
What causes a sore throat?
There are three main categories of sore throat culprits – viral, bacterial, and irritations and injuries. Some causes also bring other symptoms like fever. Fortunately, the vast majority of these are common, treatable and easy to bounce back from.
With viruses flying around us every day, don’t be surprised if your sore throat is caused by one of these:
- The common cold
- The flu or influenza
- Laryngitis, which is an infection of the voice box
- Mono, also known as Mononucleosis
- Herpangina, caused by the coxsackievirus (the same virus behind hand-foot-and-mouth disease), creating sores in the mouth and throat
Your throat, along with the parts of your body that surround it, are warm, moist and full of good food for bacteria. So, it’s no surprise that bacterial infections like these are also behind sore throats:
- Strep throat
- Tonsils that are inflamed or infected (symptoms also described as tonsillitis)
- Adenoiditis, inflammation or infection of the adenoids (similar to tonsils, but higher up in the throat)
- Infection of the tissues around the tonsils – we call it peritonsillar abscess, elsewhere it’s known as quinsy
- Inflammations of the epiglottis (epiglottitis) or uvula (uvulitis)
- Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) like gonorrhea or chlamydia
Irritations and injuries
Your sore throat could also have absolutely nothing to do with being sick from viruses or bacteria. It could be due to irritations from all kinds of sources – resulting in more chronic sore throats that last a week or more:
- Dry air with low humidity
- Smoking, vaping or breathing secondhand smoke
- Air pollution
- Yelling, talking loudly at a party or constant cheering at a game or concert
- Postnasal drip, where mucus drains from your nose and down your throat due to allergies
- Breathing through your mouth when your nose is stuffed up because of allergies
- Stomach acid backing up into your throat, also known as acid reflux
- Swallowing a piece of dry food that scratches or scrapes the side of your throat
It’s pretty easy to know when you have a sore throat. Your throat is scratchy and raw, maybe even painful. But just as there are many causes of sore throats, there are many types of sore throats themselves. Take a quick inventory of the kind of sore throat you have. Ask yourself:
- Does it hurt all the time or only when I swallow or touch my throat?
- Is it sore all the time or only at certain parts of the day, like when I wake up or when I come home after walking outside?
- Is it a dull pain or an occasional sharp pain?
- Does it hurt near the top of my throat? The middle? Everywhere?
- What other symptoms do I have? Stuffy nose, fever or headache? Something else?
Once you step back and take note of how your sore throat feels and what else is happening to your body, you can get a better idea of what’s causing it, how to treat it and when to get your doctor involved.
How long does a sore throat last?
It all depends on what is causing your sore throat. If it’s due to a cold, the flu or other virus, it should be over when the illness is over – plan for a cold- or flu-related sore throat to get better within a week. Bacterial infections can be more persistent. Fortunately, if your doctor prescribes antibiotics, your sore throat should clear up within days after you start taking them. (And if you do, be sure to keep taking your antibiotics as prescribed.) Sore throats due to injury will heal in time, but sore throats from irritations like allergies and acid reflux last as long as the underlying illnesses do.
Sore throats and COVID-19
You might have noticed that we mentioned COVID-19 as one of the viral illnesses that can cause a sore throat. It’s true, but before you assume that the tickle in your throat is COVID, do check to see if you have at least one other symptom:
- Fever with a body temperature of 100°F (37.78°C) or higher
- Dry, persistent, sometimes severe cough
- Runny or stuffy nose
- Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
- Muscle pain or body aches
- Sudden loss of taste or smell
- Vomiting or nausea
If you do, get tested and contact your doctor right away for next steps. The sooner you know you have COVID-19, the sooner you can take medications and treatments to help you through the worst of the symptoms and get you feeling better faster. Knowing if you have COVID-19 can also help protect your family as well. For the latest information, check out our COVID-19 page.
Sore throat remedies and treatments – at home and on the go
It’s good to know why you have a sore throat and what caused it. But none of that really matters if you’re in the thick of suffering a fiery pharynx. Here are our recommended ways to get relief.
Fast sore throat remedies during the day
Whether you’re resting at home or wrestling with a sore throat as you go about your day, here are some quick and long-term ways to get relief.
- Use medicated throat sprays or lozenges – These use medicines like local anesthetics to numb your throat, helping out with pain and irritation. If you use lozenges, resist the urge to chew them like candy. Instead, slowly let them dissolve in your mouth so you can get the most relief as possible.
- Gargle with warm salt water – Dissolve 1/2 teaspoon of salt in one cup of warm water. Take a sip, gargle and swallow until it’s gone. Repeat often throughout the day to tamp down the swelling and irritation inside your throat.
- Stay hydrated with hot and cold drinks – Drink plenty of water, juice and other non-carbonated beverages. Mix it up with hot tea, hot chocolate and soup as well.
- Eat cool, soothing foods – Popsicles are absolutely perfect for relief, along with ice cream and yogurt.
- Take an over-the-counter pain reliever – Using ibuprofen, acetaminophen or cycling between the two will also help with the pain. If you’re over the age of 20, you can also use aspirin.
Taming your sore throat overnight
When you’re in bed and trying to sleep, a sore throat can keep you wide awake. Here are some ways to reduce the pain and irritation so you can get some rest:
- Take a nighttime decongestant – Specially made nighttime decongestants (either on their own or included with cold and flu medicine) can help keep your throat from being irritated by nasal drainage as you rest. Just follow the instructions on the label to make sure you’re taking the right amount of decongestant for your age. Also check the label to see if your decongestant or cold and flu medicine includes medications like acetaminophen. If you’re taking both pain medication and cold medicine that includes the same pain reliever as an ingredient, you could end up overdosing by accident.
- Use a vaporizer or humidifier – Moist, humid air can help your throat recover throughout the night. Set it up in your bedroom as you sleep and in other rooms throughout the day.
- Keep up your daytime relief – If you find yourself awake, bring yourself back to sleep with some cool water, warm tea and maybe a quick midnight popsicle.
When to call your doctor for a sore throat
Taking care of your sore throat on your own is good for a few days. But if you’re still fighting your sore throat after 2-3 days, it might be time to make an appointment with your primary care doctor. Your doctor will check out your throat, ask you questions about the symptoms you’ve been having and possibly test you for strep throat. If the test comes back positive, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics to help you fight the bacterial infection. Otherwise, your doctor might prescribe other medications to help treat your symptoms.
If your sore throat feels unbearable, or if you also have a high fever, swollen lymph nodes in your neck or a rash, head to your local urgent care clinic. If you find yourself having trouble breathing or experiencing severe pain, call 911 immediately.
Preventing future sore throats
It sounds simple, but the best way to prevent getting a sore throat in the future is to not get sick in the first place. You can reduce your risk by washing your hands or using hand sanitizer, along with regularly sanitizing commonly used surfaces like door handles and countertops. Also, if you can, avoid contact with people who have colds or are otherwise ill.
Tobacco and vape smoke are also notorious for causing and intensifying sore throats. If you haven’t quit already, think about quitting soon. Plus, avoid secondhand smoke indoors and outdoors.
Of course, you can’t always avoid a sore throat. But with the right knowledge and good awareness of your body, you can be prepared when one comes your way.