What is Causing Your Sore Throat?

  • A sore throat is the feeling of pain and irritation or dryness that worsen when you swallow. Most sore throats are usually caused by viral or bacterial infections ranging from minor to severe. They can also be caused by environmental and lifestyle factors like smoking, exposure to secondhand smoke, and pollution.

  • For minor cases of sore throat, your healthcare provider may recommend a combination of home remedies and over-the-counter (OTC) treatments to alleviate your symptoms.

  • More severe cases may be treated with antibiotics as well as home remedies or OTC medication. Antibiotics can also help prevent other medical complications like pneumonia from developing.

A sore throat is a common condition among Americans, although only around 4% of individuals who experience it seek medical care.

Even though it can be uncomfortable and frustrating to deal with, a sore throat is rarely cause for concern. It mainly develops because of a minor infection that can be treated at home.

Some causes of a sore throat are more serious and will require professional medical care. That’s why it’s important to know what to look out for and when to see a doctor.

In this article, we outline everything you need to know about a sore throat, including treatment and prevention options.

What is a Sore Throat?

A sore throat is characterized by a feeling of irritation, scratchiness, or pain that worsens when you swallow.

It’s a common condition that is usually nothing to worry about;most sore throats are caused by minor illnesses like colds and flu.

What are the Common Causes of Sore Throat?

  • There are a number of things that can cause a sore throat including:. Allergies: The body’s immune system may react to irritants like pollen, dust mites, pet hair, or mold. This reaction can make the throat feel dry or scratchy, and may also result in a post nasal drip that can cause irritation in the back of the airway.

  • Viral infection: Harmful viruses may enter the body and cause an inflammatory response that can trigger a sore throat.

  • Tonsillitis: This condition occurs when bacteria or viruses infect and inflame the tonsils, which can irritate the throat. .

  • Acid reflux: People who experience regular heartburn or suffer from gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) may feel a burning sensation and pain in their throat. This is caused by the stomach acid that is pushed up into the esophagus.

  • Nicotine products: Smoking cigarettes or being frequently exposed to secondhand smoke can irritate the airway and lead to a sore throat.

  • Overuse and mouth breathing: You can strain your throat by screaming or yelling frequently, eating spicy food, and drinking excessively hot liquids. Breathing through your mouth can also cause the throat to become irritated and inflamed.

Key Point

Is a Sore Throat Always a Sign That You Have COVID-19?

Although a sore throat is a common symptom of COVID-19, it’s not always an indication that you’ve contracted the virus.

If you suspect that you may have COVID-19, assess yourself for the following symptoms:

  • Headache
  • Fever or chills
  • Fatigue
  • Cough
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Loss of taste or smell
  • It’s important to get tested right away if you think that you have COVID-19. If you test positive, you will most likely have to isolate for a few days while you are still contagious.

You can find your nearest COVID-19 testing site here.

Who is more at risk of developing a sore throat?

Although anyone can develop a sore throat, certain groups of people and factors may increase the risk. These include:

  • Children under the age of five
  • Specific seasons where many people tend to get sick, like winter or spring
  • Frequent exposure to irritants like cigarette smoke or pollution
  • Poor personal hygiene
  • Environments with large groups of people, like schools or daycares
  • Frequently straining your vocal cords for long periods of time

How Long Does a Sore Throat Last?

Most sore throat cases last for up to one week. Within that time, your symptoms should start to improve.

If your discomfort persists, it’s recommended that you make an appointment to speak to your healthcare provider.

Sore throats that don’t seem to get better and last for more than ten days may be an indication of a more serious infection.

Is a sore throat causing you discomfort?

Don’t wait to feel better. Schedule an online appointment with a doctor or nurse practitioner.

Which Symptoms Should I Look out for?

Symptoms of a sore throat may vary depending on the cause. Common symptoms usually include:

  • Throat pain that worsens when swallowing or talking
  • Dry or scratchy sensation
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Sore and swollen glands in the neck or jaw
  • Swollen, red tonsils
  • Hoarse voice

If your sore throat is caused by an infection, you may also experience additional symptoms like:

  • Runny nose
  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Sneezing
  • Body and muscle aches
  • Headache
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Conjunctivitis (pink eye)

Are There Different Types of Sore Throats?

Sore throats can be divided into different types, based on the part of the throat that the infection affects. In this section, we’ll take a closer look at what these are.


This condition causes swelling and soreness in the back of your throat and is typically caused by viral infections such as the common cold, influenza, and mononucleosis.

Less often, bacterial infections like measles, chickenpox, and strep can cause pharyngitis, too.

Some sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) like chlamydia and gonorrhea can also cause pharyngitis to develop, although this is rare.


Tonsillitis is a condition that develops when the tonsils become infected. Our tonsils protect the body from bacteria and viruses that enter it through the nose and mouth.

However, this makes the tonsils vulnerable to infection as well.

Viruses infections such as the common cold are usually the cause of tonsillitis, but bacterial infections can also trigger it.


This condition occurs in the voice box when the vocal cords become inflamed — usually due to overuse, irritation, or infection.

Laryngitis can be acute or chronic, depending on the cause of the irritation.

Apart from overusing the vocal cords, things like viral infections and environmental factors can also cause laryngitis. In some cases, laryngitis can also develop because of a bacterial infection.

How is Sore Throat Diagnosed?

The best way to diagnose the cause of your sore throat is to visit a licensed medical professional.

They will perform a physical examination where they check your throat and tongue. Your doctor may also inspect your ears if they suspect a viral infection.

To rule out strep throat, your doctor may perform a strep test. This entails collecting mucus from your throat with a swab and sending it to a laboratory for further testing.

Key Point

What is Strep Throat?

Strep throat develops as a result of a bacterial infection caused by the streptococcus pyogenes organism.

It’s a common condition among adults and children that can make the throat feel sore and scratchy.

If left untreated, strep throat can cause other severe medical conditions like kidney inflammation and rheumatic fever—an illness that can damage the heart valves.

Common symptoms of strep throat include:

  • Pain in the throat that comes on quickly
  • Red and swollen tonsils that may also have white patches or pus on them
  • Painful swallowing
  • Tiny red spots on the back of the roof of the mouth
  • Swollen lymph nodes in the neck
  • Headache
  • Fever
  • Body aches
  • Nausea and vomiting, especially in younger children

If you suspect that you may have strep throat, you should speak to your doctor as soon as possible. They will be able to recommend further treatment.

What are the Treatment Options for a Sore Throat?

Depending on the cause and severity of your sore throat, your doctor may recommend a combination of home remedies and other medications. Let’s take a look at the different options.

Home remedies

Many home remedies can provide relief for a sore throat and ease some of your symptoms. Your doctor may recommend that you do the following:

  • Drink warm liquids — like lemon and honey tea, water, or broth — to help soothe dry, scratchy throats.
  • Suck on ice chips or popsicles to alleviate pain.
  • Gargle with salt water to relieve pain and irritation.
  • Use a humidifier or vaporizer to add moisture to your environment and prevent a dry throat.
  • Rest your voice.
  • Avoid irritants like nicotine products, secondhand smoke, spicy food, and very hot liquids for a few days.

Over-the-counter (OTC) medicine

OTC medication is a common way to treat a sore throat caused by minor illnesses like colds and flu. Your doctor may also recommend OTC medicine for relieving secondary symptoms.

Common OTC medicines used for treating a sore throat are:

  • Antihistamines: If your sore throat, pain, and other symptoms are caused by allergies or a post nasal drip, antihistamines can help dry it up and provide relief.

  • Antacids: For acid reflux-related sore throats, antacids can reduce pain and discomfort caused by stomach bile in the esophagus.

  • Pain relievers: Tylenol, Advil, and aspirin are common OTC medications for alleviating pain and discomfort.

  • Throat sprays, cough syrup, and lozenges: These options usually contain a numbing or cooling agent that provides relief from pain.

  • Corticosteroids: Low dosages of this medication may alleviate pain without causing any serious side effects.


If your sore throat is caused by a serious infection, like strep or mononucleosis, your doctor will prescribe antibiotics to help you treat it.

Antibiotics can also be used to prevent more serious illnesses like pneumonia, bronchitis, and rheumatic fever.

Your doctor will likely prescribe an antibiotics course that lasts 10 days. It’s important to finish the course and take your medication as prescribed, even if your symptoms clear up.

Stopping an antibiotic course too early increases the risk of leaving harmful bacteria alive.

This increases the risk of reinfection and can also lead to antibiotic resistance — a condition that makes it more challenging to treat future infections with antibiotics.

Can a Sore Throat be Prevented?

While a sore throat isn’t always avoidable, there are several things you can do to minimize your risk of developing this condition.

These include:

  • Practicing good hand hygiene.
  • Limiting your contact with people who have respiratory infections, colds, and sore throats.
  • Avoid sharing food, drinks, and utensils.
  • Smokers should consider quitting.
  • Avoiding exposure to secondhand smoke as far as possible.
  • Getting vaccinated against viruses that cause a sore throat like colds, flu, and COVID-19.

When Should I See a Doctor About My Sore Throat?

As we’ve mentioned earlier in this article, a sore throat is usually caused by minor illnesses that aren’t a cause for concern.

However, you should seek immediate medical care if you experience any of the following:

  • Difficulty breathing or swallowing
  • Blood in your saliva or phlegm
  • Excessive drooling (in young children)
  • Joint swelling and pain
  • Rash
  • Dehydration

More severe symptoms like the ones mentioned above may be an indication of a serious infection that requires professional treatment.

You should also make an appointment with your doctor if your sore throat lasts for more than seven days.

Where Can I Learn More About Sore Throat and Similar Conditions?

If you have a sore throat or are concerned about any of your other symptoms, you can speak to a board-certified physician or nurse practitioner from the comfort of your home.

Head over to LifeMD to make a telehealth appointment.

Jarrod Nero, MSN, APRN, FNP-C

Jarrod, a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner, earned his B.S. in Nursing from William Carey University and an M. S. in Family Health Nursing from the Southern University of Baton Rouge. He lives in New Orleans with his partner and son.

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This article is intended for informational purposes only and should not be considered medical advice. Consult a healthcare professional or call a doctor in the case of a medical emergency.

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