What is sore throat?
A sore throat can be caused by a virus or a bacterial infection. It is also called pharyngitis, which means inflammation of the pharynx (the back of the throat).
It usually means you have a virus like a cold or the flu. Your body will normally fight off the infection within a week without the need for medical treatment. Antibiotics cannot be used to treat a virus.
What causes a sore throat?
The most common cause of a sore throat is a virus like a cold, the flu or glandular fever.
Less than 1 in 3 sore throats is caused by a bacterial infection. Some sore throats are caused by the bacteria Strepococcus pyogenes. This is sometimes called a ‘strep’ throat. If bacteria are the cause, you tend to become very unwell and your infection seems to get much worse. If the sore throat is caused by bacteria, you may benefit from antibiotics.
Sore throat symptoms
If the sore throat is caused by a cold, you may also have a runny nose, cough, possibly fever and feel very tired.
If it’s a strep throat, other symptoms may include:
- swollen glands in the neck
- swollen red tonsils
- tummy pain
Sore throat diagnosis
If you or child has a sore throat and you are worried about the symptoms, see your doctor. Seek medical attention if:
- you have trouble breathing or swallowing
- you have a stiff or swollen neck
- you have a high fever
They will examine you by looking at your throat with a torch and feeling your glands. They may take a swab from the throat to see if you have a bacterial infection.
Sore throat treatment
There is no way to cure a sore throat that is caused by a virus. You can just treat the symptoms with pain relief. The sore throat should clear up in 5 to 7 days.
If the sore throat is caused by bacteria, you may benefit from antibiotics.
Self-care of a sore throat
Along with being sore, your throat may also be scratchy and you may have difficulty swallowing. To help with the symptoms, try gargling with warm, salty water or drinking hot water with honey and lemon. Warm or iced drinks and ice blocks may be soothing.
Avoid foods that cause pain when you swallow. Try eating soft foods such as yoghurt, soup or ice cream.
It is important to stay well hydrated so drink plenty of water. If you have an existing medical condition, check with your doctor about how much water is right for you.
Keep the room at a comfortable temperature and rest and avoid heavy activity until symptoms go away.
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 if you have a high temperature (fever).
See your doctor if:
- your sore throat becomes worse
- your sore throat does not improve after 5 days
- you are concerned
Not sure what to do next?
If you are still concerned about your sore throat, check your symptoms with the healthdirect Symptom Checker to get advice on when to seek medical attention.
The Symptom Checker guides you to the next appropriate healthcare steps, whether it’s self care, talking to a health professional, going to a hospital or calling triple zero (000).
Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.
Last reviewed: February 2019