Question: How do I know what’s causing a sore throat? And what can I do to relieve it?
It’s the time of year when we all begin monitoring our health for any little sign of a cold or flu, or—this year—the coronavirus. And one symptom that can give anyone a sinking feeling is soreness creeping into your throat, making each swallow a painful reminder that something is off. In fact, sore throats are one of the most common reasons people see their family practitioner and they are more common in kids than adults.
A sore throat can be annoying or incredibly painful, and it can be a sign of several different conditions, from seasonal allergies to the dreaded strep throat. Here’s how to decode a sore throat to see if—or when—you need to bring in the professionals and what you can do to ease the pain.
Why do we get sore throats? The tube that sits at the back of our throat, nestled in between our tonsils and our voice box, is called the pharynx. When it becomes infected with a bacteria or virus, it gets swollen and tender. Allergies can also cause a sore throat when your body produces mucus that drips from your nose into the back of your throat and irritates it.
What could be causing my sore throat?
- Viruses, such as the ones that cause the common cold and flu, are the most common cause of sore throats. (In fact they cause 85–95% of sore throats in adults and 70% in kids). A cold is a more likely culprit of the achiness if you are not also experiencing a fever. A sore throat can also be a symptom of COVID-19, but it is not as common as other symptoms such as fever, fatigue, and a dry cough.
- Bacterial infections, such as strep throat, which is caused by the bacterium known as streptococcus pyogenes. It can be blamed for about 20–30% of sore throats in kids. Other symptoms of strep include fever, swollen glands, headaches, stomachaches, and a red, rough rash on the body.
- Allergies might be to blame if the sore throat is not severe, comes with other allergy symptoms such as sneezing, itchy eyes, ears or throat or a runny nose, and you don’t have a fever.
Pro-tip: A fever is a sign that your sore throat is caused by a viral or bacterial infection. Your provider can listen to your symptoms, look in your throat, and test you for a bacterial infection, such as strep or a viral infection such as flu, to help figure out the specific cause.
When should I see the doctor?
Kids: The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends calling your provider if your child’s sore throat doesn’t get better as the day progresses or after they’ve had a drink of water. It is especially important if your child also has a fever, headache, stomachache, is drooling (which may mean the pain is too intense to swallow) or is showing signs of dehydration.
Adults: You can always check in with your provider, but it’s definitely a good idea if you have:
- A severe sore throat or pain that lasts longer than a week.
- A fever higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit.
- A rash or swollen lymph nodes in your neck (your lymph nodes are large bumps under your ears that you can feel through your skin and may be tender).
- Hoarseness that lasts longer than two weeks.
- Earaches, joint pain, or swelling in your face or neck.
- Blood in your phlegm.
You should get immediate medical help for anyone who is having trouble breathing, swallowing, or opening their mouth.
How do you treat a sore throat? Most sore throats are viral and will go away on their own as your body fights the virus. In the case of the influenza virus, antiviral medications may help speed your healing. But if your doctor determines that a bacterial infection—like strep throat—is the culprit, a course of antibiotics should clear it up. If your pain is caused by postnasal drip from allergies, treating your allergies more effectively will help.
What can I do at home to lessen the pain?
- Drink liquids that feel good on your throat, which might be warm tea with honey or ice water. You can also suck on ice or a popsicle if the cold is more relieving to you.
- Gargle with warm salt water a few times a day. Mix ½ teaspoon salt with a cup of water.
- Try sucking on hard candies or lozenges (Note: Young kids should not use these since they could be a choking hazard).
- Moisten the air around you with a cool mist vaporizer or humidifier.
- If these remedies don’t work, try over-the-counter pain relievers such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen.
What can I do to be prepared for sore throats? In the age of COVID-19, we are all trying to minimize our trips to the store, so it’s a great idea to keep some pain relievers on hand, including:
- Acetaminophen or ibuprofen (in the appropriate strength for your household members)
- Pedialyte popsicles for kids, which can relieve pain and prevent dehydration.
What’s the best way to prevent a sore throat? Wash your hands frequently and well to make it less likely that you will become infected by a bacteria or virus.
If you or a loved one is suffering from a sore throat, we’re here to help. Use the Amazon Care app to connect with a doctor, nurse practitioner, or nurse in minutes. They’re available to talk about your health by chat or video, 24 hours a day.