Sore Throats: Causes, Symptoms and Treatments

Your throat is the passageway that runs from the back of your mouth up to the top of your windpipe and food pipe. It contains your tonsils, voice box and pharynx. A key role of your throat is to help filter out potentially harmful bacteria to stop infection.

What is a Sore Throat?

Most people experience a sore throat at some point. Inflammation of the tissues in your throat region causes the trademark sore throat symptoms.

Uncomplicated sore throats typically last up to 3 days and often link to colds and flu. The coughing from these illnesses can further aggravate your throat.

A severe sore throat lasting over 3 days may indicate a more serious condition like tonsillitis or laryngitis. See your doctor in this case. Sore throats also come with viral infections including measles, mumps, chicken pox, glandular fever and whooping cough. These are highly contagious, especially in winter.

What Causes a Sore Throat?

Sore throats normally stem from a viral or bacterial infection. The key difference is that bacteria respond to antibiotics but viruses do not. You can catch a sore throat by sharing drinks, kissing, coughing, sneezing etc.

Viral Sore Throats

Most sore throats are caused by a virus, as with colds and flu. These are most common in winter when we spend more time indoors near others, allowing germs to spread rapidly. A viral infection can lead to a secondary bacterial infection once your immune system is weakened.

There is no instant treatment for viral sore throats. Fortunately, they usually pass within a few days as your body fights off the virus itself.

Bacterial Sore Throats

Bacteria can prompt more severe sore throats, potentially leading to tonsillitis or ear infections. The throat can become extremely inflamed and painful. Antibiotic treatment from your doctor provides the only effective remedy to ease symptoms in most cases.

The bacteria behind most sore throats is called streptococcus group A (strep A). Strep throat involves sudden sore throat with fever but no cough or cold signs. It is very common in children.

What is Tonsillitis?

Tonsillitis means your tonsils are infected. Your tonsils and back of throat may appear red, swollen and dotted with white/yellow pus spots. With infected tonsils, you may also have a high temperature, headache and feel generally unwell.

Tonsillitis can stem from either a virus or bacteria but the symptoms are the same. Where bacteria cause tonsillitis, it is nearly always the strep A type.

Tonsillitis often occurs repeatedly if your tonsils are prone to inflammation. Some people have their tonsils surgically removed (tonsillectomy) if they suffer frequent severe tonsillitis episodes. However, this is only considered when the recurrent tonsillitis causes significant disruption or health risks. A tonsillectomy is a common procedure among children but less so for adults.

Other Sore Throat Causes Include:

  • Pollution – irritates the throat
  • Allergies – sore throats can happen during hay fever or allergy attacks
  • Smoking – major throat irritant and infection risk
  • Temperature changes – such as going from warm indoor areas to freezing outside
  • Overusing your vocal cords – through singing or shouting

Recognising Sore Throat Symptoms

Typical symptoms of bacterial or viral sore throats include:

  • Painful red throat
  • Swollen tonsils
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Swollen glands and neck stiffness

In viral sore throats, the pain often starts gradually and on one side. Bacterial sore throats tend to cause sudden, severe pain on both sides. The distinction is not definitive though.

Treating Sore Throats

It is hard to judge from throat appearance or pain levels whether the cause is viral or bacterial. A throat swab is often needed to confirm the diagnosis.

Most viruses clear up within days without treatment. Antibiotics do not generally relieve throat pain as such. Normally it is best to let viral infections run their course.

Bacterial sore throats can be easily treated with a course of antibiotics from your doctor. This is essential to prevent more serious complications.

Soothing a Sore Throat

Whether your sore throat stems from a virus or bacteria, the tips below can help ease your symptoms:

  • Drink plenty of non-alcoholic fluids
  • Gargle with warm salty water
  • Take paracetamol to reduce fever
  • Try gargling soluble aspirin then swallowing
  • Suck throat lozenges
  • Use throat sprays
  • Avoid smoking
  • Avoid alcohol

You can also try soothing sore throats with warm teas, lemon and honey drinks or ice pops. Get plenty of rest until your throat heals. The advice is the same for both children and adults with sore throats.

When to See Your Doctor

You should see a doctor if:

  • You are finding swallowing very difficult
  • Symptoms last over 4 days
  • Your neck glands are swollen
  • You have a persistent fever over 101°F / 38.3°C
  • Your tonsils have pus
  • You have breathing difficulties
  • You have a stiff neck and severe headache
  • You have an earache
  • A body rash develops
  • You cough up blood or phlegm
  • Mouth ulcers last over 2 weeks
  • Your phlegm is green or yellow

Contact your doctor promptly if sore throat pain is severe or you have signs of dehydration like dizziness or reduced urine output. This is especially important for vulnerable groups like the elderly and people with weakened immune systems.

In summary, sore throats are a common complaint but can stem from viruses or more severe bacterial infections. Seek medical advice if your sore throat is very painful, persists beyond 3-4 days or you have any concerning symptoms. Otherwise, try self-care measures like warm drinks, painkillers and throat lozenges to soothe the irritation until it clears up.

Photo by Nicolas Ladino Silva on Unsplash

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