Diagnosing and Treating a Sore Throat

A sore throat can be caused by anything from a viral infection to cold air

Sore throat

Has your throat ever felt so scratchy you could hardly talk? Or hurt so much you couldn't swallow, and even turning your head was painful? A sore throat, or in medical terms, "acute pharyngitis," can have a variety of causes. Here's an overview of the most common ones, plus helpful advice on easing the ache. 


Although a sore throat is really a symptom in and of itself—in other words, it's rare for your throat to hurt when you don't have other symptoms of illness—it can vary widely in intensity.

It can be just a bothersome scratchy feeling when you swallow or so painful that not only is swallowing difficult but even talking or turning your head hurts. 


Around 70 percent of sore throats are caused by a virus, such as a common cold virus or flu virus that infects the tissues around the throat. The pain usually stems from inflammation of the pharynx or tonsils but also may include other areas surrounding the throat, such as the larynx, making it hard to talk. 

Oftentimes, a sore throat is one of the first symptoms of a cold and develops when excess mucus drains down the back of the throat rather than out of the nose. The same can happen during a flare-up of hay fever or some other seasonal allergy that affects the upper respiratory tract.

The Epstein-Barr virus is responsible for the intense throat pain and swollen tonsils that are characteristic of mononucleosis. Strep throat, on the other hand, can be equally painful but is caused by a bacterium (Streptococcus).

A sore throat also can develop from breathing in cold, dry air through the mouth, or from having a foreign object stuck in the throat. 


There's usually no reason to see a doctor for a minor sore throat because, chances are, you just have a cold. But when a sore throat is so severe it takes all you've got to swallow without wincing and simply talking or turning your head brings on excruciating pain, get checked out.

Your doctor can run tests to try to figure out why you're in such pain. For example, a blood test can look for the presence of certain white blood cells and antibodies that indicate you've been infected with the Epstein-Barr virus. To check for a bacterial infection, such as strep, he can take a throat culture by swabbing the back of your throat and then testing the material picked up by the swab.

Home Treatments

Most sore throats don't last long, but even a minor one can be uncomfortable and bothersome. Here are some easy and effective ways to get relief until the pain goes away on its own: 

  • Drink warm liquids, such as honey or lemon tea
  • Gargle with warm salt water (dissolve half a teaspoon of salt in one cup of water)
  • Drink cold liquids or suck on popsicles 
  • Suck on hard candies or lozenges. (Note that this isn't a safe sore throat remedy for very young children who can easily choke on these items.)
  • Use a cool-mist vaporizer or humidifier in your bedroom
  • Take over-the-counter pain medicine, such as Tylenol (acetaminophen)


When a sore throat is caused by a bacterial infection, an antibiotic to clear up the infection will at the same time ease symptoms, including throat pain. This is the only time this type of medication will be helpful: Antibiotics have no effect on viruses, which usually tend to clear on their own.

When to Call the Doctor

A sore throat is rarely an emergency, but when it's accompanied by other symptoms it can be a sign that something serious is wrong. If any of the following come along with a sore throat, call your doctor or healthcare provider:

  • Severe difficulty breathing or swallowing
  • Excessive drooling (in young children)
  • A fever over 100 F 
  • Swollen lymph nodes in the neck
  • Pus in the back of the throat
  • Rough, red rash

Otherwise, treat your sore throat to a little TLC and give your voice a rest. Before you know it you'll be able to swallow without a second thought. 


National Institutes of Health. "Sore Throat." Medical Encyclopedia. Oct 21, 2016.