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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
- adults can try gargling with a homemade mouthwash of warm, salty water (not recommended for children)
- 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. There isn't much scientific evidence to suggest they help, although some people find them worth using.
Antibiotics aren't usually prescribed for a sore throat, even if it's caused by a bacterial infection, as they're unlikely to make you feel better any quicker and they can have unpleasant side effects.
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 bacterial infection.
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 doctor if:
- your symptoms are severe
- you have persistent symptoms that haven't started to improve after a week
- you experience severe sore throats frequently
- 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 accident and emergency (A&E) department or call 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