Sore throat

Sore throats are very common and usually nothing to worry about. They normally get better within a week. Most are caused by minor illnesses such as colds or flu and can be treated at home.

Treatments for a sore throat 

The following measures can often help soothe a sore throat:

  • take ibuprofen or paracetamol – paracetamol is better for children and for people who can't take ibuprofen (note that children under 16 should never take aspirin)
  • drink plenty of cool or warm fluids, and avoid very hot drinks
  • eat cool, soft foods
  • avoid smoking and smoky places
  • gargle with a homemade mouthwash of warm, salty water
  • suck lozenges, hard sweets, ice cubes or ice lollies – but don't give young children anything small and hard to suck because of the risk of choking

There are also products such as medicated lozenges and sprays sold in pharmacies that you may want to try. They don’t treat the infection, but some people find they help with the symptoms.

Antibiotics aren't usually prescribed for a sore throat, as most are not caused by a bacterial infection. Even if it's caused by a bacterial infection, they are unlikely to help if prescribed within the first three days of a sore throat beginning.

Causes of a sore throat 

The cause of a sore throat isn't always obvious. But in most cases it's a symptom of a viral, (or sometimes a bacterial) infection.

Common causes 

A sore throat is often a symptom of:

  • colds or flu – you may also have a blocked or runny nose, a cough, a high temperature (fever), a headache and general aches
  • laryngitis (inflammation of the voice box) – you may also have a hoarse voice, a dry cough and a constant need to clear your throat
  • tonsillitis (inflammation of the tonsils) – you may also have red or spotty tonsils, discomfort when swallowing and a fever
  • strep throat (a bacterial throat infection) – you may also have swollen glands in your neck, discomfort when swallowing and tonsillitis
  • glandular fever – you may also feel very tired and have a fever and swollen glands in your neck

It may also be caused by something irritating your throat, such as smoke, gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (where acid leaks up from the stomach) and allergies.

Less common causes 

Less often, a sore throat can be a sign of:

  • quinsy (a painful collection of pus at the back of the throat) – the pain may be severe and you may also have difficulty opening your mouth or difficulty swallowing
  • epiglottitis (inflammation of the flap of tissue at the back of the throat) – the pain may be severe and you may have difficulty breathing and difficulty swallowing

These conditions are more serious and should be seen by a doctor as soon as possible (see below).

When to get medical advice 

You don't usually need to get medical advice if you have a sore throat.

But it's a good idea to contact your GP or GP out of hours service if:

  • your symptoms are severe
  • you have persistent symptoms that haven't started to improve after three days, or have got worse
  • you experience severe sore throats often
  • you have a weak immune system – for example, you have HIV, are having chemotherapy, or are taking medication that suppresses your immune system

When to get emergency help 

Very rarely, a sore throat can be a sign of a serious problem.

Visit your nearest emergency department or call 999 for an ambulance immediately if:

  • your symptoms are severe or getting worse quickly
  • you have difficulty breathing
  • you're making a high-pitched sound as you breathe (called stridor)
  • you have difficulty swallowing
  • you start drooling

The information on this page has been adapted from original content from the NHS website.

For further information see terms and conditions.

This page was reviewed August 2017

This page is due for review November 2019

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