A sore throat is usually pain, discomfort or irritation in the throat area that feels worse when you swallow.
It can be a result of a number of factors, ranging from mild symptoms of a simple cold to something more severe like tonsillitis. A sore throat relating to a typical cold usually lasts up to two days and often precedes other common cold symptoms like a runny nose, cough, congestion and sneezing.
The majority of sore throats are manageable with simple measures such as drinking plenty of fluids and rest.
Check with your doctor if symptoms persist or if you feel your sore throat is a result of a more serious underlying medical condition.
Symptoms of a Sore Throat
Typical symptoms of a sore throat can include:
- Pain or discomfort
- Difficulty swallowing
- Throat feeling scratchy or irritated
- Redness in the throat
- A hoarse voice and voice changes
If these symptoms persist and an infection begins, we would recommend visiting your GP.
Common Causes of a Sore Throat
The causes of a sore throat can vary. Here are a few common reasons why you may have a sore throat.
Colds, Flu or Other Viral Infections
A cold or the flu is the most common reason behind a sore throat. The resulting mild symptoms are often short-lived and disappear within a week.
A sore throat can also occur as a result of other viruses such as measles and chicken pox.
Bacterial infections such tonsillitis or strep throat (a bacterial infection that causes inflammation and pain in the throat) can also cause a sore throat. This requires immediate treatment once the bacteria is identified, normally with a saliva test at a doctor’s visit.
The main symptoms that may appear with this type of sore throat include:
- Frequently recurring sore throats
- Difficulty breathing or opening your mouth
- Ear aches
- Fever higher than 38.3° C
- Blood in your saliva or phlegm
- Swelling in your neck or face or a lump in your neck
- Hoarseness lasting longer than two weeks
- Joint pain
Smoking and Chemical Irritants
Nicotine smoke, alcohol and even spicy food may all irritate the throat and cause chronic sore throat. Household chemicals and fumes can irritate the throat. Other irritants include car fumes, smokey barbecues and fires.
Excessive singing, talking or yelling loudly can strain the muscles in the throat. To help prevent this, warm up your vocal chords prior to intense singing or long speeches, in conjunction with constantly sipping water.
Dust, pollen, mould and pet hair can irritate the throat and cause soreness. This is particularly the case when the allergens trigger a post nasal drip at the back of the throat, which may lead to inflammation and soreness of the throat.
A dry throat can occur from not drinking enough water which commonly leads to a scratchy, sore throat. Breathing through the mouth due to a blocked nose, can also result in a dry, sore throat.
Other causes of a sore throat include: oral thrush (in the mouth), reflux/ indigestion (where stomach acid may travel up the oesophagus), and throat tumours.
How to Treat a Sore Throat
Due to the self-limiting nature of most sore throats, self-care is important and includes the following:
- Rest, especially the vocal chords by limiting singing and shouting.
- Drinking plenty of fluids as this helps to lubricates the throat and wash away infection causing bacteria
- Throat gargle - antiseptics in gargles and lozenges may combat mild bacteria and when combined with an anaesthetic, can help soothe and numb a sore throat. Iodine gargles are useful in speeding up recovery time since it is effective in killing both viruses and bacteria. Inflamed throats require anti-inflammatories in throat gargles and sprays to provide comfort from the soreness. Gargling warm salty water helps to lubricate and flush the throat, reducing dryness and also, washing the foreign pathogens out of the throat area.
Tablets containing paracetamol with or without anti-inflammatories (e.g. ibuprofen) may reduce the pain of a sore throat.
The majority of pain relief treatments temporarily soothes the soreness of the throat. Medical treatment should be sought if the pain persists for at least two days.
How to Prevent a Sore Throat
Practising good hygiene helps to reduce exposure to germs which may cause sore throats:
- Wash your hands, often and carefully, before touching your face, eating, and after sneezing or coughing
- Do not share food, drinking glasses or utensils
- Cough or sneeze into your elbow or into a tissue and throw it in the bin
- Use alcohol-based hand sanitisers when soap and water is unavailable
- Avoid touching public phones or drinking fountains with your mouth
- Regularly clean (with a sanitising cleanser) items that you use frequently every day such as phones, TV remotes and computer keyboards
- Avoid close contact with people who are sick to prevent the spread of germs
When Do You Need to See a Doctor?
If you’ve had a sore throat for at least a week, especially if you are experiencing severe or abrupt symptoms, it is recommended you see your GP or go to a hospital. This is particularly the case when the throat is blocked or if you are having difficulty swallowing.
The following symptoms may accompany sore throats and require immediate medical attention:
- Swelling of tonsils and lymph nodes in the neck, as well as at the back of the throat
- White or yellow spots on tonsils
- Increased difficulty and pain in swallowing
- Bad breath
How Your Pharmacist Can Help
Our friendly Pharmacists can help provide advice and appropriate treatments ease the symptoms of a sore throat and help speed up recovery. Simple lifestyle changes and following a healthy diet, especially one rich in antioxidants and immune boosters such as blueberries is recommended. For more serious cases of infection, your Pharmacist can refer you to a GP.