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Sore throat

Sore throats are common and not usually serious. Most people will have at least 2 or 3 every year. Children and teenagers are more likely to get sore throats than adults.

Most sore throats will clear after a few days without the need for medical treatment. After a week, almost 9 in 10 people will be well again.

Symptoms

Sore throats are usually a symptom of a viral infection. Most sore throats are caused by a virus so antibiotics won't help.

Symptoms include:

  • painful throat, especially when swallowing
  • dry scratchy throat
  • redness in the back of the mouth
  • bad breath
  • mild cough
  • swollen neck glands

You may also have a runny or blocked nose, sneezing, fever and a tickly cough.

Causes

Sore throats are caused by infections called tonsillitis.

Sometimes your voice gets hoarse too. This is called laryngitis.

Viruses cause tonsillitis and laryngitis.

Glandular fever is one kind of viral tonsillitis.

Croup is one kind of viral laryngitis.

Sometimes they can be caused by bacteria (strep throat). With bacterial infections you will usually feel sicker and take longer to get better. Your immune system may clear the strep throat or you may need an antibiotic.

Treatment

Over-the-counter painkillers can usually relieve the symptoms of a sore throat.

While it may sound obvious, try to avoid hot food and hot drinks as this could irritate your throat. Eat cool, soft food and drink cool or warm (not hot) liquids. Adults and older children can suck lozenges, hard sweets, ice cubes or ice lollies.

To help relieve the pain and discomfort of a sore throat you can:

  • use paracetamol or ibuprofen
  • use medicated lozenges or anaesthetic sprays, although there's little proof they help

You can buy them from a supermarket or from a pharmacist without a prescription.

Your GP

Usually, you do not need to see a GP if you have a sore throat.

See your GP if:

  • you have a sore throat and a very high temperature, or you feel hot and shivery
  • you have a weak immune system – for example, if you have diabetes or you're having chemotherapy
  • you often get sore throats
  • you are worried about your sore throat

A severe or long-lasting sore throat could be something like strep throat (a bacterial throat infection) or tonsillitis.

If you still have a sore throat after 2 weeks, it’s best to get it checked.

Antibiotics

GPs don't usually prescribe antibiotics for sore throats. This is because antibiotics will not usually relieve your symptoms. They won't speed up your recovery either.

Your GP will only prescribe them if they think you have a bacterial infection.

When to go to your emergency department

Call 999 or go to your emergency department (ED) if :

  • you have difficulty breathing
  • you're drooling or can't swallow your saliva
  • your symptoms are severe and getting worse quickly

Related topic

The emergency department

page last reviewed: 13/06/2019
next review due: 13/06/2022