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Sore throat

We all get sore throats from time to time. They aren’t usually serious and often get better on their own within a week. Find out about causes, symptoms, and treatment.

What is a sore throat?

A sore throat is when you have pain, dryness or irritation in your throat that sometimes worsens when you swallow. It’s often the first sign of a cold or flu. Because it can be part of a virus, you might experience a combination of symptoms, such as a sore throat and headache or an earache and sore throat.

How long does a sore throat last?

A sore throat usually gets better in a week or so. If it doesn’t improve after a week, you should see a GP.

Symptoms of a sore throat

If you have a sore throat, you may experience:

  • Pain when swallowing

  • A dry, scratchy throat

  • Swollen neck glands

  • Swollen, red tonsils (the fleshy pads at each side of the back of your throat)

  • White patches or pus on your tonsils

  • Bad breath

  • A hoarse voice

  • Children may also get a temperature and have less energy

Often a sore throat is a symptom of a viral illness, so you might also have a:

  • Temperature

  • Cough

  • Sneezing

  • Runny or blocked nose

  • Headache

  • Earache

  • Muscle aches and pains

Is a sore throat a symptom of COVID-19?

A sore throat isn’t one of the main symptoms of COVID-19 (coronavirus). But if you have a sore throat and cough, it’s worth getting tested. The most common symptoms of COVID-19 include:

  • High temperature

  • New, continuous cough

  • Loss or change to your sense of smell or taste

Causes of a sore throat

In most cases, a sore throat is caused by a viral illness, like the common cold or flu. Occasionally it can be caused by bacteria, most commonly Streptococcus pyogenes, which causes strep throat.

There are several other sore throat causes, including:

  • Smoking or being around smoke

  • Dry, indoor air

  • Muscle strain from shouting or talking for a long time

  • Allergies like dust and pollen (these can cause a post-nasal drip that inflames the throat)

Treatment for a sore throat

What helps a sore throat will depend on the cause. For advice, speak to a pharmacist who may suggest you try:

  • Paracetamol or ibuprofen

  • Medicated lozenges

  • An anaesthetic spray

These treatments can be bought in a pharmacy or supermarket without a prescription.

Unless your sore throat is caused by a bacterial infection, you won’t be prescribed antibiotics.

How to get rid of a sore throat at home

Wondering how to soothe a sore throat at home? There are plenty of sore throat remedies and advice you can try, including:

  • Getting plenty of fluids

  • Avoiding caffeine and alcohol

  • Eating cool, soft, nutritious food

  • Staying away from smoke

  • Sucking on ice cubes or lollies (small children shouldn’t try this)

  • Using a humidifier

  • Getting plenty of rest and sleep

You could also try gargling warm saltwater, though children should avoid this home remedy as they may accidentally swallow it. It won't cure your sore throat or viral infection but should help you feel a bit more comfortable while your body fights it off. To give it a go yourself, try dissolving 1/4 - 1/2 a teaspoon of salt in a 250ml glass of warm water and then gargling it before spitting out.

How to lower your risk of getting a sore throat

You can’t always avoid getting a sore throat, but you can avoid the germs that cause them by following good hygiene practices like:

  • Regular handwashing

  • Not touching your face

  • Not sharing food, drinks or cutlery

  • Coughing and sneezing into a tissue

  • Avoiding close contact with people who are ill

When to see a GP

You should see a GP if you have a:

  • Constant sore throat for over a week

  • High temperature with your sore throat

  • Weakened immune system

You should call 999 if you or your child:

  • Has difficulty breathing or swallowing

  • Is drooling

  • Is making a high-pitched noise when breathing

  • Has severe symptoms that are worsening quickly

Reviewed by:

Dr Rhianna McClymont

Lead GP at Livi