Sore Throat (Pharyngitis) (cont.)

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Is a sore throat contagious?

A sore throat may be contagious, depending on the underlying cause. For practical purposes, because infection causes the majority of cases of sore throat, under these circumstances a sore throat can be contagious. Whether the sore throat is caused by a viral infection (the most common cause) or strep throat, measures should be taken to prevent the transmission of the infectious causative agent. In the majority of cases, these types of infection are transmitted person-to-person via saliva or nasal secretions commonly spread in airborne respiratory droplets, or through direct contact with infected objects (for example, cups or utensils) and infected surfaces. Frequent hand washing , covering your mouth when coughing, and not sharing utensils and cups are important ways to stop transmission.

When should I see a doctor for a sore throat?

Sore throat is a common symptom, and the decision to seek medical care can sometimes be difficult. Though many individuals with a sore throat will have a viral illness that will typically run its course and resolve without problems, there are certain causes of sore throat that may require treatment beyond expectant management and over-the-counter (OTC) medications. Therefore, strong consideration should be made to visit your health care professional for an evaluation.

Individuals with a sore throat and the following signs or symptoms should immediately visit their doctor or the nearest emergency department:

  • Severe sore throat
  • Drooling
  • Difficulty or inability to swallow saliva or liquids
  • Difficulty or inability to open your mouth
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Severe neck pain or neck stiffness
  • Redness or swelling of the neck
  • Bleeding from the throat, or blood in your saliva/phlegm
  • Fever > 101 F (38.3 C)

How is the diagnosis of sore throat made?

In order to diagnose the cause of a sore throat, a health care professional will obtain a detailed history of your illness and conduct a physical exam. Based on this evaluation, the cause of the sore throat can better be determined. Because most cases of sore throat are associated with infection, your health care professional may need to conduct testing to differentiate between a bacterial cause of infection and a viral cause of infection. If there is suspicion of strep throat, for example, most often your health care professional will perform a throat swab in order to run a rapid antigen detection test (rapid strep test). Results for this test take only minutes and can generally be obtained during your visit. A throat culture may be sent to the lab for definitive evaluation of strep throat if the initial rapid strep test is negative, and these results are typically available within 24 to 48 hours.

Usually no further testing is necessary but depending on the details of your history and the findings on your physical exam, your health care professional may need to obtain further testing to help determine the cause of your sore throat. Blood tests may be ordered, and radiologic imaging (a CT scan, for example) of the throat and neck area may also be necessary to evaluate for other various causes of sore throat (abscess, trauma/injury, tumor, etc). In certain cases, you may be referred to a specialist depending on your symptoms and presumptive diagnosis (an Ear, Nose and Throat specialist, for example).

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 10/18/2013

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