Also known as:
A sore throat is a common symptom that people may experience when they have a cold or the flu. Most people will see some improvement after 48 hours.
People who have a sore throat may find it difficult and painful to swallow.
The vast majority of sore throats are from viral infections which don’t require antibiotics. However, a sore throat can also be a symptom of strep throat, which is a bacterial infection that may require antibiotics.
Strep throat can lead to rheumatic fever in more high-risk groups if left untreated. It mainly affects Māori and Pacific children and young people (aged 4 to 19 years), especially if they have other family members who have had rheumatic fever.
What causes a sore throat?
9 out of 10 sore throats are caused by a viral infection and are usually a symptom of a common cold or the flu.
Some sore throats are caused by bacterial infections. Streptococcus (strep throat) is the most common of these. A strep throat can lead to rheumatic fever if it is not treated quickly with antibiotics. Rheumatic fever is a serious illness because it can cause heart damage.
Having a sore throat is also one of the symptoms of glandular fever – along with fever and swollen glands in the neck.link to glandular fever article
Symptoms in adults
A painful or scratchy throat, especially when you swallow
Redness at the back of your mouth
Cold and flu symptoms such as a cough, hoarseness, red eyes and runny nose (usually not seen with strep throat).
The glands in your neck are swollen
Your tonsils are large and covered in white stuff.
Patients may also have accompanying cold and flu symptoms like:
itchy red eyes
a runny nose
Treatment in adults
Most of the time, a sore throat just needs to run its course. This is particularly true when it’s caused by a viral infection.
If a sore throat is caused by a bacterial infection, and it’s quite severe, or has the potential to turn into something more serious (like rheumatic fever), the person may need antibiotics. It’s important that whenever you’re prescribed antibiotics, you take the full course, even if you start to feel better part way through.
Regardless of the cause, there are a few things that can help to relieve a sore throat including:
Eating soft foods that are less likely to irritate the throat, such as soup
Having cold foods and drinks
Drinking lots of water
Sucking on ice cubes or throat lozenges
Steering clear of smokers, or refraining from smoking if you are one
Symptoms and treatments for kids
If strep throat is left untreated, it can turn into rheumatic fever, which can lead to permanent heart damage. Rheumatic fever is more common in children than adults.
Māori and Pasifika children are more at risk of developing rheumatic fever, so they will need antibiotics if they have a strep throat.
If your child isn’t considered high-risk, they probably won’t need antibiotics.
Antibiotics are used to treat bacterial infections like strep throat.
Gargling warm salty water can help to relieve a sore throat. 1 tsp of salt to 1 cup of warm water is the recommended ratio.
Warm water with fresh lemon juice and honey mixed into it can also help soothe a sore throat.
Common over-the-counter medications
Paracetamol can be used to help relieve the pain. If you’re giving this to children, be sure to check the correct dosage.
Medicated throat lozenges can also relieve pain, but these should not be given to children.
How long does a sore throat last?
Most sore throats will improve after a couple of days.
Should I see a doctor?
If your sore throat isn’t getting better after 48 hours, see a doctor.
You should also see a doctor if you or your child have any of the following symptoms:
Moments where breathing stops while sleeping
Snoring while sleeping (if it’s happening more than usual)
Rashes appear on the skin
If you or someone in your family has had rheumatic fever and you get a sore throat, you should see a doctor.
You’re more at risk of developing rheumatic fever if you are Māori or Pasifika, aged between 3–35 years old and/or live with lots of other people. If you fit into any of these categories, get your sore throat checked by a doctor.
A sore throat can also be one of the symptoms of COVID-19. If you develop a cough, sore throat, runny nose, feel short of breath or experience a loss of smell, you need a test. You can also call the dedicated COVID-19 Healthline on 0800 358 5453 for further advice
Practicing good hygiene is the best way to prevent a sore throat.
Wash your hands thoroughly before eating or preparing food.
Keep your distance from other people who have sore throats.
Don’t share saliva – that means you should avoid sharing cups, forks and spoons.
Sore throats are more common during winter when its cold and flu season.
Clinically reviewed by: Dr Mataroria Lyndon
Date of review: 5th August 2022