Sore Throat

What is a sore throat? (click to close)

Most often a sore throat is a symptom of another illness – usually a viral infection such as a cold or flu (influenza). In many cases, it’s the first indication that you’re getting sick.

Most sore throats are caused by viruses – the same germs that cause colds and flu. A smaller percentage are due to bacterial infections. Both types of sore throats occur throughout the winter, when the incidence of respiratory disease is highest. The incidence of Strep throat is highest in the autumn and spring.

How do we get a sore throat? (click to close)

Viruses and bacteria enter your body through your mouth or nose – either because you breathe in particles that are released into the air when someone coughs or sneezes, or because you have hand-to-hand contact with an infected person or use shared objects such as utensils, towels, toys, doorknobs or a telephone. Because the germs that cause sore throats are contagious, they can spread easily wherever large numbers of people congregate: schools, childcare centres, offices or even your own home.

Allergies, disease states, smoking and exposure to chemical irritants, muscular strain and drug therapy, can all be causative factors of the symptom of a sore throat.

What are the symptoms of a sore throat? (click to close)

A sore throat usually occurs in combination with other signs and symptoms. These can vary greatly, depending on the type of infection you have.

Sore throats caused by bacteria or viruses may have the following symptoms: –

  • If the tonsils are swollen this will cause difficulty in swallowing and pain. The pain may also spread to the ears. The lymph nodes under the jaw and neck may also be swollen which would also cause pain and difficulty in swallowing.
  • A viral infection of the throat may lead to blisters that develop on the tonsils and soft palate. A bacterial infection caused by streptococcus leads to a coating of the tonsils, which often makes the breath smell.
  • A high temperature may be associated with a viral infection, which is normally connected to a common cold. Streptococcal infections can also cause a temperature.

Who is most at risk? (click to close)

Children and Teenagers

  • Children and teenagers are most likely to develop sore throats. The average child of age five to eighteen may have up to five sore throats a year with the average adult developing half this number. Strep throat – the most common bacterial infection associated with a sore throat – also occurs far more frequently in children. Less than one in ten adult sore throats are strep-related, whereas up to forty percent of sore throats in children may be caused by strep bacteria.

Allergy sufferers

  • If you have seasonal allergies (hay fever) or ongoing allergic reactions to dust, moulds or pet hair, you are more likely to develop a sore throat than people who do not have allergies.
  • Tobacco smoke, whether primary or secondary, contains hundreds of toxic chemicals that can irritate the sensitive lining of your throat. Smoking also increases your risk of tumours of the throat, tongue and voice box, a symptom of which can be sore throat. (link to smoking cessation)
  • Particulate matter in the air from the burning of fossil fuels as well as common household chemicals can cause throat irritation. Alcohol abuse also irritates the throat and, like smoking increases the risk of tumours of the throat, tongue and voice box, a symptom of which can be a sore throat.

Gastrointestinal reflux sufferers

  • Stomach acid coming back up the gullet and spilling over into the windpipe, (link to heartburn and indigestion) can lead to sore throat.

Chronic or frequent sinus infection sufferers

  • Drainage from nose or sinus infections can cause throat infections.

Living or working in close quarters or in dry indoor environments

  • Viral and bacterial infections spread easily anywhere people gather – childcare centres, classrooms, offices, prisons and military installations. Also in these environments dry indoor air, especially in winter when rooms tend to be overheated and can make your throat feel sore, particularly in the morning when you first wake up. Breathing through your mouth – often because of chronic nasal congestion – can also cause a dry, sore throat.


  • Those in occupations or situations where they often have to raise their voice may find they get sore throats due to muscle strain.

Oral thrush

  • People who are taking drugs which lower the effectiveness of their immune system (for example after transplantation, for the treatment of cancer or for auto-immune conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis or colitis) and people with HIV may get sore throats due to the fungal infection, oral thrush. This is because the mouth normally contains a large number of microorganisms, which provide a healthy environment in the mouth. But if the immune system is not functioning properly, the balance of these microorganisms can change and this can cause problems, such as the development of oral thrush.
  • Asthmatics, who are using steroid inhalers at high doses or incorrectly, often experience dryness and sore throat that is caused by oral thrush.

What are the complications of sore throat? (click to close)

Although most bacterial throat infections are not dangerous, they can lead to serious complications. Strep throat, in particular, can cause other infections, such as tonsillitis, sinusitis, ear infections and scarlet fever (in which there is also a high temperature and rash).

Strep throat may also lead to a more serious illness known as rheumatic fever. This is when inflammatory spots (nodes) form in various tissues, including the joints, skin and muscles. These nodes also may form on the heart muscle, the lining of the heart and especially the heart valves. The formation of these nodes leads to scarring that can interfere with the flow of blood inside the heart. Although surgery can sometimes repair scarred valves, the damage may often be permanent and in some cases may lead to heart failure

Glandular fever is a viral throat infection and may also have complications, which are much more serious for those with a lowered immune response (e.g. people who are taking drugs which lower the effectiveness of their immune system and people with HIV or AIDS). Complications include liver inflammation, risk of haemorrhage, anaemia, inflammation of the heart and nerve damage.

When should you seek medical advice? (click to close)

Although uncomfortable, most sore throats are not harmful and go away on their own in five to seven days. But sometimes they can signal a more serious condition. See your doctor if you or a child has any of the following: –

  • A sore throat that is severe or that lasts longer than a week
  • Severe difficulty swallowing or breathing
  • Excessive drooling in a young child
  • A temperature higher than 101F (38.3C) in babies under age six months and 103F (39.4C) in older children
  • Tender or swollen lymph glands in the neck
  • Puss at the back of the throat
  • Rash
  • Hoarseness that lasts longer than two weeks
  • Blood in saliva or phlegm
  • Symptoms of dehydration, such as sunken eyes, severe weakness and decreased urine output
  • Contact with someone who has been diagnosed with strep throat
  • Recurring sore throats

What is the best treatment for a sore throat? (click to close)

Since most sore throats are caused by viral infections over-the-counter preparations will not cure a sore throat or make it go away any sooner, but they can relieve some symptoms. Many over-the-counter preparations are not suitable for those who are pregnant or for children under six years of age and may not be suitable for other individuals, so make sure you talk to your local Haven Pharmacist for advice. Zinc Lozenges with Vitamins C help boost the immune system’s virus-fighting power and also reduce the duration and severity of common-cold symptoms.

One of the most important things to do, if you have a cold, is to look after yourself. Follow these self-care tips to make yourself as comfortable as possible:

Double your fluid intake

  • Fluids help keep mucous thin and easy to clear.

Gargle with warm salt water

  • Mix 1/2 teaspoon of salt in a full glass of warm water, gargle, and then spit the water out. This will soothe your throat and clear it of mucus.

Use honey and lemon

  • Stir honey and lemon to taste into a glass of very hot water. The honey coats and soothes your throat, and the lemon helps remove mucous.

Humidify the air

  • Adding moisture to the air prevents your mucous membranes from drying out. This can reduce irritation and make it easier to sleep.

Avoid smoke and other air pollutants

  • Smoke irritates a sore throat. At least while you are ill stop smoking and avoid all fumes from household cleaners and paint. Do not expose children to second-hand smoke.

Rest your voice

  • If your sore throat has affected your voice box (larynx), talking may lead to more irritation and temporary loss of your voice (laryngitis).
Find out more about sore throats from your local Haven Pharmacist.