Sore Throat? Know the Facts.


What Is It?

A sore throat, also known as pharyngitis, is a painful inflammation of the back part of the throat (pharynx). Pharyngitis can involve the following parts of the throat:

  • the back third of the tongue
  • the soft palate (roof of the mouth)
  • the tonsils (fleshy tissue that is part of the throat’s immune defenses).

Viruses and bacteria are the most common causes of a sore throat.

Most throat infections (90%) are caused by viruses. In regions that have warm summers and cool winters, viral pharyngitis typically peaks during the winter and early spring. During these seasons, people are more likely to gather in poorly ventilated rooms. The viruses that cause this infection spread easily through the air in droplets from coughs, sneezes and runny noses.


Simple viral pharyngitis is usually uncomfortable with no long-lasting problems. Nonviral pharyngitis is usually caused by bacteria. The most common cause being group A beta-hemolytic streptococcus (aka strep throat).

Untreated strep throat can lead to serious complications, such as glomerulonephritis (a kidney disorder) and rheumatic fever (a potentially serious illness that can damage heart valves). A strep infection also has the potential to spread within the body, causing pockets of pus (abscesses) in the tonsils and in the soft tissue around the throat.


The main symptom of pharyngitis is a pain to the area affected.  In infectious pharyngitis, other symptoms vary depending on whether the infection is viral or bacterial (usually strep throat):

Viral pharyngitis —a sore throat is often accompanied by the following symptoms:

  • A red throat
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Dry cough
  • Hoarseness
  • Redness of the eyes
  • Children may have diarrhea.Some viruses cause painful sores in and around the mouth, including the lips.

Strep throat — Strep throat and other forms of bacterial pharyngitis cause sore throat, pain with swallowing and a red throat. These symptoms tend to be more severe with Strep throat compared to viral pharyngitis. Other symptoms that often occur with Strep throat include:,

  • Fever
  • Body ache and a general sick feeling generally sick feeling
  • Headache
  • Enlarged tonsils with white spots
  • Swollen, tender lymph nodes (swollen glands) in the front of the neck.
  • Children also can have nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain.

It can be difficult to differentiate viral and bacterial pharyngitis because they share many symptoms and may look similar on physical exam by your doctor.

A sore throat that lasts for more than a couple of weeks may be caused by acid reflux from the stomach, breathing through the mouth in a dry environment, postnasal drip or, rarely, a tumor.


After reviewing your symptoms, the doctor will ask if you might recently have been exposed to someone with strep throat or any other infection involving the throat, nose or ears.

After recording your temperature, your doctor will examine you, paying particular attention to your mouth, throat, nose, ears and the lymph nodes in your neck. If your doctor is quite sure that you have strep throat, he or she may prescribe antibiotics without further testing. If there is some uncertainty, the doctor may want to do a strep test.

A rapid strep test is done in your doctor’s office, takes only a few minutes to do and detects 80% to 90% of all cases of strep throat. If this quick test is negative, but your doctor still believes you might have strep, your doctor will take a sample of your throat fluids for more intensive testing in a laboratory. Results will be available in 24 to 48 hours.

Expected Duration

If you have simple viral pharyngitis, your symptoms should go away gradually over a period of about one week. If you have strep throat, your symptoms should subside within two to three days after you begin taking antibiotics.


While it’s impossible to prevent all infections, you can help to decrease exposure and spreading:

  • Wash your hands frequently, especially after blowing your nose or after caring for a child with a sore throat.
  • If someone in your home has pharyngitis, keep his or her eating utensils and drinking glasses separate from those of other family members. Wash these objects thoroughly in hot, soapy water.
  • If a toddler with pharyngitis has been chewing or sucking on toys, wash these objects thoroughly in water and disinfectant soap, then rinse well.
  • Promptly dispose of any dirty tissues from runny noses and sneezes, and then wash your hands.
  • Do not allow a child who has been diagnosed with strep throat to return to school or daycare until he or she has been taking antibiotics for at least 24 hours and symptoms have improved.



Viral pharyngitis is treated with supportive care, things to make you more comfortable. Antibiotics do not kill viruses. Bacterial pharyngitis caused by strep infection is treated with antibiotics.

  • Getting plenty of rest (either in or out of bed)
  • Taking ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), acetaminophen (Tylenol) or aspirin (in adults only) to relieve throat pain
  • Drinking plenty of water to prevent dehydration
  • Gargling with warm, salt water to ease throat pain
  • Drinking warm liquids (tea or broth) or cool liquids or eating gelatin desserts or flavored ices to soothe the throat
  • Using a cool mist vaporizer to relieve throat dryness
  • Using nonprescription throat lozenges or anesthetic throat sprays


When To See a Medical Professional

Call your doctor promptly if you have a sore throat along with any of the following symptoms:

  • Painful swallowing that prevents you from drinking water or other clear fluids
  • Difficulty breathing through your mouth
  • Noisy breathing or excessive drooling
  • Fever above 101 degrees Fahrenheit

Also, call your doctor if you have any type of throat discomfort that lasts for more than two weeks.