- A sore throat, or pharyngitis, is when the throat is red, swollen and painful, especially when you swallow.
- The most common cause of a sore throat is a virus, but some sore throats are caused by the bacteria streptococcus pyogenes — this is a 'group A streptococcus', sometimes called 'strep A'.
- There is no way to cure a sore throat that is caused by a virus.
- If the sore throat is caused by bacteria, you may benefit from antibiotics.
- Sometimes, when the sore throat is caused by strep A, complications can occur, including an abscess at the back of your throat, rheumatic fever and problems with your kidneys.
What is a sore throat?
A sore throat, or pharyngitis, is when your throat is red, swollen and painful, especially when you swallow. It happens when the back of the throat, called the pharynx, is inflamed.
What are the symptoms of a sore throat?
A sore throat is pain or a scratchy sensation in the throat which may worsen with swallowing or talking. It may be difficult to swallow. The throat might also be red, with white patches or streaks of pus. If your sore throat is caused by a cold virus, you may also have a runny nose, cough, possibly fever and feel very tired.
If your sore throat is caused by an infection with streptococcal bacteria, other symptoms may include:
- swollen lymph nodes (glands) in the neck
- swollen red tonsils
- abdominal (tummy) pain
What causes a sore throat?
Less than 1 in 3 sore throats is caused by a bacterial infection. Some sore throats are caused by the bacteria streptococcus pyogenes (strep A). This is sometimes called 'strep throat'. If your sore throat is caused by bacteria, you may feel very unwell.
Sore throats and children
Sore throats are very common in children. They are usually caused by a virus. Your child may also have a runny rose, cough, sore ears, a fever, feel tired and eat less food.
It is more likely to be strep throat if your child is older than 3 years and if they have swollen glands in their neck, swollen red tonsils with white spots, a rash and vomiting.
If your child is 5 years or younger, you can also call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby on 1800 882 436 for advice, support and guidance from our maternal child health nurses.
When should I see my doctor?
Usually, sore throats go away without treatment in 2 to 7 days. You should see your doctor if you:
- have trouble breathing, or have fast, noisy breathing
- have a stiff or swollen neck (rather than throat pain)
- have a rash that does not fade when the skin is pressed
- are very drowsy
- have cold or discoloured hands and/or feet, with a warm body
- have pain in your arms and/or legs
- your lips, or the skin around your lips, are an unusual colour (pale or blue)
You should see your doctor if your child:
- has a sore throat lasting longer than 2 days
- is drinking poorly, longer than 1 day
- has difficulty swallowing
- is snoring more when they're asleep
- has large tender lumps in their neck
- has a new skin rash, or bruising
- has ear pain
CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use the Symptom Checker and find out if you need to seek medical help.
How is a sore throat diagnosed?
If you or your child has a sore throat and you are worried about the symptoms, see your doctor.
The doctor will look at your throat with a torch and feel your neck for swollen glands. They may take a throat swab to try and find the cause of infection. Swabs can test for a range of viruses and bacteria.
How is a sore throat treated?
There is no way to cure a sore throat caused by a virus. The sore throat should clear up in 2 to 7 days. In the meantime, you can ease the symptoms by taking pain relief medicine.
If the sore throat is caused by bacteria, you may benefit from antibiotics.
The Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Health Care has developed a guide which can be used with your doctor to help you decide whether to use antibiotics when you or your child has a sore throat.
Sore throat remedies and self-care
Over-the-counter medicines might help, such as lozenges or throat gargles that contain local anaesthetic. If you are pregnant or breastfeeding, it is best to avoid products that contain iodine. Your pharmacist can give you more information.
You can try self-care remedies that may help you feel better, such as:
- staying well hydrated by drinking plenty of water
- drinking hot water with honey and lemon
- gargling with warm salty water
- eating soft foods like yoghurt, soup, ice cream, ice blocks or jelly
- avoiding foods that cause pain when you swallow
If you have an existing medical condition, check with your doctor about how much water and fluid is right for you.
Smoking or breathing in other people's smoke can make symptoms worse. Try to avoid being around people who are smoking. If you are a smoker, try to cut down or quit. For advice on quitting smoking, visit the Quit Now website.
Find out more about self-care tips on what to do if you have a high temperature (fever).
Can a sore throat be prevented?
Sore throats are very common and can't always be prevented. You can help prevent sore throats by doing your best to stay healthy, including:
- washing your hands well and often
- covering your nose and mouth when sneezing or coughing
- keeping people with strep throat, out of school, childcare and work until they have been taking antibiotics for 24 hours and feel well
- not sharing eating utensils, food or drinks
- throwing away used tissues appropriately
Complications of a sore throat
Most sore throats go away without treatment and don't cause complications. Sometimes, when the sore throat is caused by strep A, complications can occur.
One complication is an abscess (a pocket of pus), which develops next to the tonsils or in the back of the throat
Another complication is rheumatic fever. Rheumatic fever can develop after the sore throat has gone away. You may have fever, joint pain, rash, inflammation of the heart and other symptoms.
You may also develop problems with your kidney after having a strep infection.
Resources and support
To find out more information on the signs, causes, diagnosis and treatment of sore throats, visit:
- SA Health – for information on the treatment and prevention of streptococcal sore throat.
- The Sydney's Children Hospital Network – for tips on what to do when your child complains of a sore throat.
Call healthdirect on 1800 022 222 (known as NURSE-ON-CALL in Victoria) for more information and advice. A registered nurse is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
If you have a young child with a sore throat, Pregnancy, Birth and Baby's video call service allows you to speak face-to-face with a maternal child health nurse.
Video call is a free service and is available from 7am to midnight (AET), 7 days a week (including public holidays).
Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.
Last reviewed: June 2023