What is a sore throat?

Strep throat is caused by a bacteria.
Strep throat is caused by a bacteria.

A sore throat is irritation and scratchiness in the throat accompanied by pain that often worsens with swallowing. A sore throat is often the first warning sign of an infection. The most common cause of a sore throat is a viral infection. Rarely, a bacterial infection can cause a sore throat. A sudden, severe sore throat without coughing, sneezing, or other cold symptoms may be an indication of a bacterial infection, usually caused by Streptococcus bacteria. Hence, it is called a strep throat.

What are different types of sore throat?

Sore throats may be divided into three types based on the part of the throat they affect

  • Pharyngitis: It affects the area right behind the mouth.
  • Tonsillitis: Swelling and redness of the tonsils, the soft tissue in the back of the mouth. Sometimes, white patches or areas of pus will form on the tonsils. These white patches are more common in strep throat than in a sore throat caused by a virus.
  • Laryngitis: Swelling and redness of the voice box or larynx.

What are the common causes of a sore throat?

Causes of sore throats range from infections to injuries. Below are the most common causes of a sore throat

  • Viral infection: Viruses cause about 90% of sore throats. Common cold and influenza are the most common viral infections that may cause a sore throat. 
  • Bacterial infection: A Streptococcus bacterium is the most common cause of a sore throat due to a bacterial infection. Strep throat causes nearly 40% of sore throat cases in children. Tonsillitis and sexually transmitted infections such as gonorrhea and chlamydia can also cause a sore throat.
  • Allergies: Usually, the immune system reacts to allergy triggers such as pollen, grass and pet dander. It releases chemicals that cause symptoms such as nasal congestion, watery eyes, sneezing and throat irritation. Excess mucus in the nose can drip down the back of the throat. This is called postnasal drip and can irritate the throat.
  • Injury: Any injury, such as a hit or cut to the neck, can cause pain in the throat. Getting a piece of food stuck in your throat can also irritate it. Repeated use strains the vocal cords and muscles in the throat. A person can get a sore throat after yelling, talking loudly or singing for a long period of time.
  • Tumor: A tumor of the throat, voice box or tongue may cause a sore throat. When a sore throat is a sign of cancer, it doesn’t go away after a few days.
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD): It is a condition in which acid from the stomach backs up into the esophagus (the tube that carries food from the mouth to stomach). The acid burns the esophagus and throat and may sometimes cause a sore throat.
  • Dry air: Dry air can suck moisture from the mouth and throat and leave them feeling dry and scratchy. The air is most likely dry in winter when the heater is running.
  • Smoke, chemicals and other irritants: Many different chemicals and substances in the environment irritate the throat, including cigarette and other tobacco smoke, air or traffic pollution, cleaning products and other chemicals.

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Should I take antibiotics for a sore throat?

Antibiotics cannot treat a sore throat if it is caused by a viral infection. Viruses cause about 90% of sore throats; hence, antibiotics should not be used immediately as treatment for a sore throat. Antibiotics may also cause side effects such as diarrhea, vomiting and skin rashes. Sore throats caused by a viral infection usually go away on their own in four to five days. Excessive antibiotic use may also render the antibiotic ineffective when it is needed.

A doctor may prescribe antibiotics such as penicillin if a sore throat is caused by a bacterial infection. However, a strep throat goes away in three to seven days with or without antibiotics. 

Antibiotics may not make a person better faster. It lowers the risk of a bacterial infection spreading to another individual or other parts of the body such as the ears and sinuses. They may also prevent serious but rare problems such as rheumatic fever in children.

How can I treat a sore throat without antibiotics?

A sore throat usually lasts less than a week. If a sore throat lasts more than four days, medical attention may be required. Below are few remedies to soothe the throat

  • Suck on lozenges (only in children older than two years old).
  • Use a clean humidifier or cool mist vaporizer.
  • Gargle with warm salt water.
  • Drink warm beverages and plenty of fluids.
  • Use honey to relieve cough for adults and children at least one year of age or older.
  • Get plenty of rest.
  • Take over-the-counter medicine such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen to relieve pain and reduce fever.

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Medically Reviewed on 8/26/2020
References
Medscape Medical Reference

Kaiser Permanente


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