One of the most common questions patients asks pharmacists is about sore throat relief during the winter months. We’ve all had sore throats around this time of year. Your throat feels scratchy and may hurt when you swallow. What can you do to soothe a sore throat? And when is it a sign of a more serious infection1 ?
Most sore throats are caused by viral infections such as the common cold or the flu. An estimated 200 to 300 different strains of virus cause colds and sore throat. In up to 90% of cases, sore throat is caused by viruses linked to the common cold or flu. The other 10% of cases result from bacterial infections or some other medical condition2 . These throat problems are generally minor and go away on their own.
To soothe your irritated throat, keep it moist. “Ever notice that a sore throat seems worse in the morning? It’s because your throat gets so dry overnight,” says Dr. Valerie Riddle, an infectious disease expert at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). “Having lozenges or hard candies—or anything that stimulates saliva production—will keep your throat moist. It’s also important to drink plenty of fluids.”
For young children who might choke on hard candies or lozenges, try cold liquids and popsicles. Throat pain might also be soothed by throat sprays and over-the-counter pain relievers such as acetaminophen, ibuprofen or aspirin, but don’t give aspirin to young children.
Risk Factors for Sore Throat
There are many things that can increase your risk for a sore throat, including:
- Age (children and teens between 5 and 15 years old are most likely to get a sore throat)
- Exposure to someone with a sore throat or strep throat
- Time of year (winter and early spring are typical times for strep throat)
- Weather (cold air can irritate your throat)
- Irregularly shaped or large tonsils
- Pollution or smoke exposure
- A weak immune system or taking drugs that weaken the immune system
- Post-nasal drip or allergies
To see whether you have strep throat, the doctor will take a throat swab. If test results confirm strep, your doctor will prescribe antibiotics. After 24 hours of taking them, you should no longer be contagious. You’ll likely begin feeling better within a couple of days, but to fully recover it’s important to finish all of the medicine.
Strep is highly contagious. Treat it quickly to prevent it from spreading to others. Riddle says, “Not only can the infection be transmitted, but there are potential complications from untreated strep throat.” These include ear infections, rheumatic fever, and kidney problems.
Another fairly common throat infection is tonsillitis, which occurs when you have sore, swollen tonsils3 . It’s caused by many of the same viruses and bacteria that cause sore throats. If you have frequent bouts of tonsillitis or strep throat, you may need surgery (called a tonsillectomy) to have your tonsils removed.
The best way to protect yourself from the germs that cause these infections is to wash your hands often. Try to steer clear of people who have colds or other contagious infections. And avoid smoking and inhaling second-hand smoke, which can irritate your throat.
Signs and Symptoms of a Sore Throat
The following symptoms are often associated with sore throats caused by a viral infection or due to allergies:
- Watery eyes
- Mild headache or body aches
- Runny nose
- Low fever (less than 101 °F)
Symptoms more commonly associated with strep throat (bacterial) include:
- Red and swollen tonsils, sometimes with white patches or streaks of pus
- Tiny red spots (petechiae) on the soft or hard palate (the roof of the mouth)
- High fever (101 °F or above)
- Swollen lymph nodes in the neck
- Severe headache or body aches
Sore Throat Relief
- Try hot tea with lemon or some hot soup.
- Keep your throat moist with lozenges or hard candies.
- Gargle with warm salt water or use ice chips.
- Cold liquids or popsicles can numb the pain. Throat sprays and over-the-counter pain relievers can help, too.
- Use a humidifier or vaporizer, especially when sleeping, to keep air from getting too dry.
- If a sore throat persists for several days, contact a health care professional.
When to Seek Medical Care4
See a healthcare professional if you or your child has any of the following:
- Sore throat that lasts longer than 1 week
- Difficulty swallowing or breathing
- Excessive drooling (young children)
- Temperature higher than 100.4 °F
- Pus on the back of the throat
- Joint pain
- Hoarseness lasting longer than 2 weeks
- Blood in saliva or phlegm
- Dehydration (symptoms include a dry, sticky mouth; sleepiness or tiredness; thirst; decreased urination or fewer wet diapers; few or no tears when crying; muscle weakness; headache; dizziness or lightheadedness)
- Recurring sore throats
There are steps you can take to help prevent getting a sore throat, including:
- Practice good hand hygiene5 .
- Avoid close contact with people who have sore throats, colds or other upper respiratory infections
- Avoid smoking and exposure to secondhand smoke.