Sore Throat - Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis, Prevention & Treatment

Tackling Sore Throat

Dr.B Prabhakar Reddy profile Authored by Dr.B Prabhakar Reddy on 3 Feb 2015 - 15:36.

A sore throat refers to an inflamed throat, causing annoying pain and irritation, especially on swallowing. In most of the cases, sore throat occurs as an initial sign of Pharyngitis (an inflammation of the pharynx). Sore throat can result from a variety of infections including viral (accounts to approx. 80% of total cases), bacterial infections, fungal infections and some other allergens. Although sore throat is common among people of all ages, the risk is a bit higher in children (between 5 to 15 years), smokers and those with weak immunity.

What is the difference between a sore throat and strep throat?

Strep throat is a rare condition that results from streptococcal infection (bacterial infection) that can make your throat feel sore and scratchy and often requires additional treatment (mainly antibiotics), unlike sore throat that may get cured with home remedies. However, sore throat occurring from rare causes may need advanced treatment. It should be noted that, all those who have sore throat do not necessarily have strep throat. Laboratory tests may help to confirm the diagnosis of strep throat. 




As mentioned above, the most common cause of sore throat is common cold and flu (viral infections); while some other infections (bacterial) and allergens may also result in sore throat. These may include:

  • Viral infections: Including influenza, common cold, measles (paramyxovirus), chickenpox (varicella zoster virus), glandular fever, laryngotracheobronchitis or croup, etc may cause sore throat.
  • Bacterial infections: Infections such as infection with Streptococcus pyogenes (causing sore throat), Bordetella pertussis (causing pertussis), and Corynebacterium diphtheriae (causing diphtheria) may cause sore throat.
  • Fungal infections: after over use of antibiotics or inhalers

Apart from these infections, other factors may also result in sore throat. These may include:

  • Allergic reactions: Allergy to dust mite, moulds, pollen, or any other allergen may result in inflamed throat causing sore throat.
  • Dry throat: Especially in the winter season throat may dry causing itching and irritation, especially in the morning.
  • Mouth breathing: Choked nasal airways often push you to breathe through mouth, causing dry throat and thereby scratching and irritation.
  • Indoor pollution: Irritants like tobacco smoke, alcohol, chemicals, etc may cause sore throat.
  • Straining of throat muscles: Throat muscles may get strained on prolonged loud talk, cheering at sports event, and so on, causing sore throat.
  • Digestive system disorder: Especially, Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD) that causes reverse flow of stomach acids may also result in sore throat along with some other symptoms of GERD.
  • AIDS: HIV infection may also cause sore throat along with any other flu like symptoms as an early sign of HIV infection.
  • Cancer: Cancer of throat, tongue or larynx may also cause throat irritation and other complications.
  • Blockage of airways: Conditions like accumulation of pus in the throat (abscess) and epiglottitis (inflammation at the base of the tongue) may block the airways causing sore throat. 



Following are the common signs and symptoms of sore throat; however, symptoms experienced by an individual may vary with the underlying cause such as:

  • Pain and irritation in the throat
  • Intense throat pain while swallowing
  • Difficulty in talking and swallowing
  • Dry throat
  • Swollen tonsils
  • Painful glands in the neck region
  • Visible patches on the tonsils
  • Hoarseness

Some people with a sore throat may also experience some other symptoms associated with bacterial or viral infections. These may include:

  • Fever and chills
  • Cough
  • Sneezing
  • Excessive mucus secretion
  • Body pain
  • Joint pain
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Severe or mild headache

When to see a doctor?

Seek an immediate medical care if:

In children:

  • Sore throat persists even after the first drink of your child in the morning
  • Obstructed breathing
  • Painful swallowing or inability to swallow
  • Saliva coming out of the mouth on swallowing (drooling)

In adults:

  • Sore throat persists for longer than a week
  • Severe pain in the throat causing difficulty in opening the mouth
  • Obstructed breathing
  • Pain in the ear
  • Joint pain
  • Fever
  • Blood in the mucus
  • Frequent sore throat
  • Hoarseness that does not go away within 1 to 2 weeks



In most of the cases, physical diagnosis may suffice the purpose of detecting sore throat. However, certain other test and procedures may be considered. Common diagnostic tests may include:

  • Physical examination of the sore throat
  • Throat swab assessment: A sample of throat secretions will be taken and examined to detect the presence of streptococcal bacteria. Positive results of this swab test indicatea bacterial infection (strep throat) while negative results mean, you may have a viral infection.
  • Blood tests: Usually complete blood count (CBC) is considered to look for various infections both, bacterial and viral may be detected.
  • Allergy test: Several additional tests may be recommended for allergies that may cause sore throat. 

Following factors may increase one’s risk of having a sore throat.

  • Being a child
  • Active or passive smoking
  • Allergy
  • Having chronic cold or other frequent infections
  • Living in a crowded and unhygienic place
  • Weakened immunity

Most sore throats, especially those associated with viral infections and common cold do not need any medical treatment, as these often go away within a week with home remedies. However, sore throats caused due to bacterial infection (strep throat) or some other causes may need an effective medical approach to prevent further complications.

Drugs and medications: Based on the diagnosed cause or infections, various medications may be prescribed. In case of strep throat, a course of antibiotics (e.g. Penicillin) is often recommended. Alternative antibiotics may be given to others who are allergic to penicillin therapy.  

Tonsillectomy (surgery to remove tonsils)–When sore throat caused due to bacterial infections do not respond to antibiotics, the doctor may consider a procedure to remove the infected tonsils.

Alternative medicines: Alternative medicines for sore throat may be consumed in the form of tea, as a spray or cough drop. Commonly recommended remedies may include:

  • Chinese herbs – Including Honeysuckle flower and some other medicines.
  • Ulmusrubra
  • Garden sage, or common sage
  • Glycyrrhiza glabra (Licorice)
  • Althaea root

Note: Do not take any alternative or herbal drug on your own. Talk to your expert; explain about your overall health, underlying conditions, etc. before considering any alternative medicine.

Complications: Untreated, partially treated (when the antibiotics course is not completed) or poorly managed strep throat may lead to:

  • Spreading of bacterial infection to other parts of the body
  • Rheumatic fever
  • Serious kidney inflammation

Lifestyle interventions and home remedies:

Usually, sore throats can be cured and managed with home remedies, unless it is severe and associated with other chronic conditions like HIV infection or cancer. Following are the common recommendations:

  • Increase your fluid intake:  8-10 big glasses of water or fruit juice daily are recommended.
  • Sleep sufficiently: Try to squeeze in 1-2 extra hours of sleep daily for several days.
  • Salt water gargle with 1/2 teaspoon of salt in a glass of warm water, 3-4 times a day.
  • Increase the humidity in your sleeping room to keep the throat moist by getting a cool-mist humidifier.
  • Use a decongestant.




To avoid infection spread.

  • Maintain a good hygiene
  • Avoid sharing bedding
  • Cover your mouth while coughing or sneezing
  • Avoid close contact with an infected person
  • Avoid irritants
  • Treat fever and other infections immediately
  • Do not smoke and avoid other tobacco products
  • Avoid second-hand smoke (passive smoking)
  • Avoid food or drink that is too hot as this could irritate your throat.
*Disclaimer This is not medical advice. The content is for educational purposes only. Please contact your doctor for any health care issues.