A sore throat (pharyngitis) is normally a symptom of a bacterial or viral infection, such as the common cold. In approximately a third of cases, no cause for the sore throat can be found.
Additional symptoms of a sore throat
If you have a sore throat, you may also have:
- Swollen tonsils (tonsillitis)
- Enlarged and tender glands in your neck
- Discomfort when swallowing
If your sore throat is caused by bacteria or a virus, you may also experience symptoms associated with common infectious conditions, such as:
- A high temperature (fever) of 38ºC (100.4ºF) or over
- Aching muscles or tiredness
- A headache
- A cough
- A runny nose
Treating a sore throat
Sore throats are common, especially in children and teenagers. This is because young people have not built up resistance (immunity) against many of the viruses and bacteria that can cause sore throats.
Most sore throats are not serious and usually pass without the need for medical treatment. Over-the-counter painkillers, such as paracetamol or ibuprofen, and self-care tips can usually help to relieve the symptoms of a sore throat without the need to see a GP.
Antibiotics are not usually prescribed for a sore throat, unless it is particularly severe or you are considered at risk of a more serious infection.
How long will a sore throat last?
A recent study looked at people who book a GP appointment for a sore throat (probably those with worse symptoms). The results found:
- In 50% of cases, moderately bad symptoms of a sore throat had settled seven days after the onset of the illness
- In 80% of cases, moderately bad symptoms of a sore throat had gone after 10 days
When to seek medical help
Make an appointment to see your GP if:
- You have a persistent high temperature above 38ºC (100.4ºF), which does not go down after taking medication
- Your symptoms do not improve within a week
It is important to investigate the cause of your temperature because it may be the result of a more serious condition, such as:
- Epiglottitis – swelling and redness (inflammation) of the epiglottis (the flap of tissue at the back of the throat, underneath the tongue) if left untreated, it can cause breathing difficulties
- Quinsy – an abscess (a painful collection of pus) that develops between the back of the tonsil and the wall of the throat, usually caused by a bout of severe tonsillitis
Blood tests may be carried out if your GP suspects you have a type of viral infection called glandular fever (also known as infectious mononucleosis).
Contact your GP, as soon as possible if you have a sore throat and you:
- Are in severe pain
- Have difficulty breathing
- Are making a high-pitched sound as you breathe (stridor)
- Start drooling
- Have a muffled voice
- Have difficulty swallowing (dysphagia) or are not able to swallow enough fluids
If your symptoms are very severe or getting worse quickly, visit your nearest accident and emergency (A&E) department or call 999/112 for an ambulance.
While most sore throats can be treated at home, some people are more at risk than others of developing complications from a sore throat, and may need additional treatment.
See your GP at the first sign of infection if you:
- Have HIV and AIDS (a virus that attacks the body's immune system)
- Have Leukaemia (cancer of the bone marrow)
- Have asplenia (when your spleen, an organ behind your stomach, does not work properly or has been removed)
- Have aplastic anaemia (when your bone marrow does not produce enough blood cells)
- Are receiving chemotherapy
- Are taking an immunosuppressant medicine (which stops your immune system working) – for example, because you have had an organ transplant
- Are taking an antithyroid medication (to stop your thyroid gland producing too many hormones), such as carbimazole
- Are taking a disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drug (DMARD) – for example, to treat arthritis (a common condition that causes inflammation in the joints and bones)
Visit your local CarePlus Pharmacy for more advice.