What Is a Sore Throat?

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A sore throat, often called pharyngitis by medical professionals, is often caused by inflammation and swelling of throat (pharyngeal) tissues due to infection or inflammation.

Viral infections such as colds or flu are the most common causes, but there can be others, such as acid reflux, allergies, and overuse of the vocal cords. Most often, viral sore throats need only soothing until they pass, but other causes, such as strep throat, require treatment to prevent related complications.

Signs You Should See a Doctor About Your Sore Throat
Verywell / Emily Roberts

Sore Throat Symptoms

Most people with sore throats have other symptoms as well. Depending on the cause, you may experience symptoms from pain and scratchiness to swelling and difficulty swallowing. The pain and discomfort may occur only when you swallow or it may be continuous.

The other symptoms that accompany a sore throat can help you decide whether or not to call your healthcare provider. They can also help a healthcare provider get to the root of the problem.

Even with no other symptoms, if your throat is so sore that you can't swallow or sleep, seek medical attention.

When To See a Healthcare Provider

  • Fever greater than 101 degrees
  • Difficulty breathing, swallowing or opening your mouth
  • Lump in your neck
  • Hoarseness lasting more than two weeks
  • Blood in mouth or sputum
  • Rash
  • Throat so sore you can't swallow or sleep

Causes of Sore Throat

The most common causes of a sore throat are viral infections including the common cold, group A Streptococcus bacteria (strep throat), and mononucleosis. In young children, Coxsackie virus and herpangina are two other viral causes.

Strep throat is the cause of sore throats up to a third of the time in school-age children, and 10% of the time in adults and younger children. This condition is caused by bacteria and needs to be treated with antibiotics to prevent serious complications.

Strep throat usually doesn't have other respiratory symptoms such as nasal drainage, cough, or congestion, but it does cause fever. You can see your healthcare provider for a rapid strep test or a throat culture if this is suspected.

You may also experience a sore throat with allergies, post-nasal drip, overuse of the vocal cords, and smokingAcid reflux can cause a sore throat when stomach acid enters the esophagus and irritates the tissues.

Environmental irritants such as smoke, air pollution, and industrial fumes can also irritate your throat. Dry air itself can cause a dry and scratchy throat.


If what's causing the sore throat itself can be addressed, that will be the primary focus of sore throat treatment.

For instance, when a bacterial infection such as strep throat is identified, antibiotics such as penicillin and amoxicillin are used to rid your body of the infection, in turn resolving your sore throat.

If a bacterial infection or other treatable health issue is not to blame, treating sore throat for comfort is all that can be done. That's the case with many causes, including the common cold and other viral infections.

You can use home remedies (such as drinking some sage tea) and over-the-counter pain medications, such as Advil (ibuprofen) and Tylenol (acetaminophen), to ease sore throat pain. Unfortunately, though, waiting it out is usually what's most effective.

Tips for Soothing a Sore Throat

  • Humidify the air by using either warm-mist or cool-mist humidifiers, or by boiling water.
  • Mix honey in with your favorite tea; it can coat the throat and act as a lubricant.
  • Gargle with salt water: 1/4 teaspoon to 1/2 cup of water is a common mixture.
  • Suck on lozenges or hard candies.

There are not many high-quality studies that have supported the use of alternative therapies. Sage, slippery elm, and licorice root may be found in some herbal teas and lozenges and are believed, though not proven, to have soothing effects. Always discuss herbal medications and supplements with your healthcare provider, as some may interact with other medications.

If your sore throat worsens or continues to progress after five to seven days, see a healthcare provider for further evaluation.

What's causing your sore throat may not be what you originally thought.

A Word From Verywell

While painful, sore throats will usually go away on their own. Stay alert for signs of fever so you can call your healthcare provider when it is appropriate. With some soothing measures the pain will pass and you'll be able to breathe (and swallow) easier.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How do I get rid of a sore throat quickly?

    Follow your healthcare provider's treatment recommendations to clear up your sore throat as fast as possible. Take any medications your provider recommends as prescribed. If you are not prescribed medication, you may only be able to ease your sore throat pain with at-home treatments until the underlying cause is resolved. Honey and lozenges are common remedies.

  • How long does a sore throat last?

    In most cases, sore throat should start to get better within five to seven days. If it doesn't resolve by then (or it gets worse), reach out to your healthcare provider for an evaluation.

  • Can you have a sore throat and not be sick?

    It's possible to have a sore throat and not be sick. Sore throat can happen if the air is especially dry or if environmental pollutants like smoke or industrial fumes irritate your throat. Allergies can cause you to have a sore throat as well.

3 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Parmet S, Lynm C, Glass RM. JAMA patient page. Sore throat. JAMA. 2004;291(13):1664. doi:10.1001/jama.291.13.1664

  2. Stead W, Aronson M, Bond S. Patient education: Sore throat in adults (Beyond the Basics). UpToDate. Jun 3, 2019.

  3. Renner B, Mueller CA, Shephard A. Environmental and non-infectious factors in the aetiology of pharyngitis (sore throat). Inflamm Res. 2012;61(10):1041-52. doi:10.1007/s00011-012-0540-9

Additional Reading
Kristin Hayes

By Kristin Hayes, RN
Kristin Hayes, RN, is a registered nurse specializing in ear, nose, and throat disorders for both adults and children.