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What is a sore throat?

A sore throat (sometimes referred to as 'pharyngitis') is a fairly common condition. It’s when your throat feels all scratchy and it may be painful to talk or swallow.

It’s usually caused by a viral infection, but can sometimes be caused by the streptococcus bacteria.

A sore throat is often a symptom of a broader medical issue, such as a cold or the flu, but it can occur on its own too.

Sore throats don’t tend to last very long and most people will recover fully within a week. However, if your sore throat isn't going away or is particularly uncomfortable, our doctors are on hand to help.

What are the symptoms of a sore throat?

Some of the most common sore throat symptoms include:

  • a scratchy sensation in your throat
  • pain and/or discomfort when swallowing or talking
  • swollen or tender glands in your neck
  • your tonsils may look red and swollen
  • there may be white pus on your tonsils
  • you may lose your voice

Depending on what’s causing the sore throat, you may also experience:

If it’s a child with a sore throat, they may also:

  • have a high temperature
  • Show signs of lethargy, or be more tired than normal

What causes a sore throat?

Sore throats can be either viral, bacterial or caused by another condition. In most cases, a virus is to blame.

Viruses and bacteria are passed from person-to-person by direct contact, such as coughs and sneezes, or indirect contact, such as touching a surface that's been touched by an infected person.

Some causes of a sore throat include:

How is a sore throat diagnosed?

Often, a sore throat will go away on its own after a few days to a week without the need to see a GP for a diagnosis or treatment.

However, if there’s no improvement after a week, you should see a GP. Likewise, if your sore throat keeps coming back, it is severe, or if you have other symptoms you’re worried about, such as a high temperature, you can see a GP.

You should also seek medical advice if you have a weakened immune system, as you are more at risk of complications from a sore throat.

Our GPs can listen to your symptoms over a video consultation and take a look at your throat before providing a diagnosis.

If you start coughing up blood, have chest pain, are drooling, have breathing or swallowing difficulties, are making a high-pitched wheezing sound as you breathe, or are deteriorating rapidly, go to A&E or call 999 urgently.

What is the treatment for a sore throat?

Often, treatment from a doctor isn’t needed for a sore throat, as it will go away on its own, usually within a few days to a week.

There are things you can do at home to help ease your symptoms, including:

  • taking over-the-counter pain medication (only use medication for children if it’s a child who has a sore throat)
  • gargling with warm salt water (this isn’t suitable for children)
  • drinking plenty of fluids - cold fluids may sooth the pain
  • resting your voice
  • getting plenty of sleep and rest
  • sucking on throat lozenges, hard boiled sweets or even ice cubes (this isn’t suitable for children as there is a choking risk)
  • avoiding smoky environments, and not smoking yourself
  • using a humidifier in your home to keep the air moist
  • using an anaesthetic spray to numb the back of your throat - these are available from a pharmacy

Antibiotics will only be prescribed if your sore throat is caused by a bacterial infection, and at the doctor's discretion. Strep throat is generally more painful and lasts longer than a sore throat caused by a virus.