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Sore Throats

Diagnosis, Home Remedies, and When to Call the Doctor

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Updated January 26, 2009

Sore throats, referred to by medical professionals as “acute pharyngitis,” can be caused by a number of different viruses and bacteria. About 70% of sore throats are caused by viruses, such as cold viruses and other upper respiratory tract viruses that infect the tissues around the throat.

What is sore throat? What are its symptoms?

Sore throat is characterized by pain, discomfort, or scratchiness in the throat, often associated with pain when swallowing.

What causes sore throat?

Sore throats are usually caused by inflammation or infection of the pharynx (pharyngitis) or tonsils (tonsillitis), but may also include other areas surrounding the throat, such as the larynx (laryngitis).

Most sore throats have infectious disease origins, but some can result from breathing in dry, cold air through the mouth (for example, during the winter) or from having a foreign object stuck in the throat (for example, a fish or chicken bone).

Most sore throats are caused by viruses. Many occur at the beginning of a cold, when runny noses drain down the back of the throat and irritate it. Sore throats can also be caused by actual infection of the throat, such as strep throat, which is caused by bacteria (Streptococcus).

Which microbes are responsible for sore throat?

Viruses

  • Cold viruses (rhinoviruses, coronaviruses)
  • Adenovirus
  • Parainfluenza virus
  • Influenza
  • Coronavirus
  • Rhinovirus
  • Enterovirus
  • Coxsackie virus (Hand, Foot, and Mouth Disease)
  • Epstein-Barr (mononucleosis)
  • Herpes Simplex ½
  • HIV

Bacteria

  • Streptococcus pyogenes (strep throat)
  • Neisseria gonorrhea
  • Corynebacterium diphtheriae
  • Haemophilus influenzae
  • Borrelia vincenti
  • Mycoplasma pneumoniae
  • Chlamydia pneumoniae

How do I know what kind of infection I have?

Your medical provider can run tests to aid in diagnosis, although the answer is not always clear-cut, especially with viral infections. The Epstein-Barr virus, which causes mononucleosis, is diagnosed by the presence of certain white blood cells and antibodies in your blood. Other viruses can sometimes be identified by tests. Bacteria are identified using throat cultures and other diagnostic tests.

What kinds of home treatments are there for sore throat?

The good news is that most sore throats do not last long. However, a few home remedies may be useful for providing relief:

  • Drink warm liquids, such as honey or lemon tea
  • Gargle with warm salt water (half teaspoon of salt in 1 cup of water)
  • Drink cold liquids or suck on popsicles (for some sore throats)
  • Suck on hard candies or lozenges (be wary of the choking risk in young children!)
  • Use a cool-mist vaporizer or humidifier
  • Take over-the-counter pain medicine, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol)

Can I take antibiotics for a sore throat?

No. Since most sore throats are caused by viruses, they cannot be treated with antibiotics (which are specific for bacterial infections). In fact, antibiotics are not recommended unless the infection is definitively diagnosed as a bacterial infection, usually through a positive strep test or bacterial culture of the throat.

When should I call the doctor?

Call your doctor or healthcare provider if the following symptoms occur:

  • Severe difficulty in breathing or swallowing
  • Excessive drooling (in young children)
  • Fever is higher than 100 F
  • Swollen lymph nodes in the neck
  • Pus in the back of the throat
  • Rough, red rash

Source:

Sore Throat. Medical Encyclopedia. Medline Plus. US National Library of Medicine. National Institutes of Health.

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