A sore throat is a painful, dry, or scratchy feeling in the throat.
Pain in the throat is one of the most common symptoms. It accounts for more than 13 million visits to doctor’s offices each year (1).
Most sore throats are caused by infections, or by environmental factors like dry air. Although a sore throat can be uncomfortable, it’ll usually go away on its own.
Sore throats are divided into types, based on the part of the throat they affect:
- Pharyngitis affects the area right behind the mouth.
- Tonsillitis is swelling and redness of the tonsils, the soft tissue in the back of the mouth.
- Laryngitis is swelling and redness of the voice box, or larynx.
The symptoms of a sore throat can vary depending on what caused it. A sore throat can feel:
It may hurt more when you swallow or talk. Your throat or tonsils might also look red.
Sometimes, white patches or areas of pus will form on the tonsils. These white patches are more common in strep throat than in a sore throat caused by a virus.
Along with the sore throat, you can have symptoms like:
- nasal congestion
- runny nose
- swollen glands in the neck
- hoarse voice
- body aches
- trouble swallowing
- appetite loss
Causes of sore throats range from infections to injuries. Here are eight of the most common sore throat causes.
Viruses cause about 90 percent of sore throats (2). Among the viruses that cause sore throats are:
- the common cold
- influenza — the flu
- mononucleosis, an infectious disease that’s transmitted through saliva
- measles, an illness that causes a rash and fever
- chickenpox, an infection that causes a fever and an itchy, bumpy rash
- mumps, an infection that causes swelling of the salivary glands in the neck
2. Strep throat and other bacterial infections
Bacterial infections can also cause sore throats. The most common one is strep throat, an infection of the throat and tonsils caused by group A Streptococcus bacteria.
Strep throat causes nearly 40 percent of sore throat cases in children (3). Tonsillitis, and sexually transmitted infections like gonorrhea and chlamydia can also cause a sore throat.
When the immune system reacts to allergy triggers like pollen, grass, and pet dander, it releases chemicals that cause symptoms like nasal congestion, watery eyes, sneezing, and throat irritation.
Excess mucus in the nose can drip down the back of the throat. This is called postnasal drip and can irritate the throat.
4. Dry air
Dry air can suck moisture from the mouth and throat, and leave them feeling dry and scratchy. The air is most likely dry in the winter months when the heater is running.
5. Smoke, chemicals, and other irritants
Many different chemicals and other substances in the environment irritate the throat, including:
- cigarette and other tobacco smoke
- air pollution
- cleaning products and other chemicals
After September 11, more than 62 percent of responding firefighters reported frequent sore throats. Only 3.2 percent had had sore throats before the World Trade Center disaster (4).
Any injury, such as a hit or cut to the neck, can cause pain in the throat. Getting a piece of food stuck in your throat can also irritate it.
Repeated use strains the vocal cords and muscles in the throat. You can get a sore throat after yelling, talking loudly, or singing for a long period of time. Sore throats are a common complaint among fitness instructors and teachers, who often have to yell (4).
7. Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is a condition in which acid from the stomach backs up into the esophagus — the tube that carries food from the mouth to the stomach.
The acid burns the esophagus and throat, causing symptoms like heartburn and acid reflux — the regurgitation of acid into your throat.
A tumor of the throat, voice box, or tongue is a less common cause of a sore throat. When a sore throat is a sign of cancer, it doesn’t go away after a few days.
You can treat most sore throats at home. Get plenty of rest to give your immune system a chance to fight the infection.
To relieve the pain of a sore throat:
- Gargle with a mixture of warm water and 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of salt.
- Drink warm liquids that feel soothing to the throat, such as hot tea with honey, soup broth, or warm water with lemon. Herbal teas are especially soothing to a sore throat (5).
- Cool your throat by eating a cold treat like a popsicle or ice cream.
- Suck on a piece of hard candy or a lozenge.
- Turn on a cool mist humidifier to add moisture to the air.
- Rest your voice until your throat feels better.
Shop for cool mist humidifiers.
Summary: Most sore throats can be treated at home. Warm liquids or frozen foods feel soothing to the throat. A humidifier can moisturize a dry throat.
Sore throats that are caused by a viral infection usually get better on their own in two to seven days (6). Yet some causes of a sore throat need to be treated.
Call your doctor if you have any of these potentially more serious symptoms:
Summary: Most sore throats get better on their own, within a few days. Bacterial infections like strep throat need to be treated with antibiotics. See a doctor for severe symptoms like trouble swallowing or breathing, a stiff neck, or a high fever.
During the exam, the doctor will ask about your symptoms, and will use a light to check the back of your throat for redness, swelling, and white spots. The doctor might also feel the sides of your neck…