Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date. This handout provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. 

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Am Fam Physician. 2004;69(2):390

What causes a sore throat?

Pharyngitis (say: “fare-en-jy-tis”)—which is what your doctor calls a sore throat—can be caused by many things. Sometimes, when mucus from your sinuses drains into your throat, the drainage can make your throat feel sore. Viruses (such as those that cause the common cold) and bacteria (which can cause many illnesses, such as strep throat) can give you a sore throat. Your throat also may feel sore if you smoke, breathe polluted air, or drink alcoholic beverages. If you have hay fever or other allergies, a sore throat may be one of the symptoms.

How do I know what is causing my sore throat?

Many of the illnesses that cause sore throats have similar symptoms. If you have a sore throat, you can treat the pain with acetaminophen, ibuprofen, or naproxen. If the soreness in your throat is still there after two days, call your doctor. He or she may need to run tests to find out the cause of your sore throat so that you can get the right treatment.

What is strep throat?

Strep throat is caused by a type of bacteria called Streptococcus (say: “strep-toe-cok-us”). The pain of strep throat often feels like a sore throat caused by other illnesses. The important thing about strep throat is that you could get serious complications if it is not treated with antibiotics.

What is the treatment for a sore throat caused by bacteria?

If your sore throat is caused by strep, your doctor will probably give you an antibiotic. It is important to take all of the antibiotic, even if you start feeling better after a few days.

What is the treatment for a sore throat caused by a virus?

Antibiotics do not work against viruses. Infections caused by viruses usually just have to run their course. If you have a cold, your symptoms will usually go away within a week or 10 days. You can help yourself feel better with the tips listed in the box below.

What about a sore throat that is caused by allergies?

If a sore throat is a symptom of hay fever or another allergy, your doctor can help you find out how to avoid the things that trigger your allergy. Or, you may need to take medicine for your allergy.

How can I feel better?

  • Take acetaminophen, ibuprofen, or naproxen.

  • Gargle with warm salt water (1 teaspoon of salt in a large glass of water).

  • Suck on throat lozenges or hard candy.

  • Suck on flavored frozen desserts, such as popsicles.

  • Use a humidifier.

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