When your throat is red and sore, there are ways to help relieve pain quickly. While a sore throat is usually not serious, you should know when to consult a health care professional. The following information will help you care for yourself with confidence.
The vast majority of sore throats are caused by a virus, such as the common cold or a flu. A sore throat can also be caused by a bacteria such as the streptococcus group A bacteria, which is the cause of strep throat. These infections are sometimes called tonsillitis (inflammation of the tonsils—the tissues on either side of your throat) or pharyngitis (inflammation of the pharynx, or throat).
Other causes of sore throats include:
- cigarette smoke
- straining the voice (e.g. after shouting at a hockey game), trauma (e.g. from a forceful cough or sneeze)
- allergens, which are substances that cause an allergic reaction
- gastroesophageal reflux, where the lower esophagus does not close properly, and digestive acids rise up into the throat.
Symptoms that often go along with a sore throat are hoarseness and swollen lymph nodes in the neck.
Your goal is to reduce discomfort and eliminate the cause of your sore throat. Consider these self-care tips.
- Don't smoke. Inhaling smoke will further irritate a sore throat. This is a great time to quit smoking!
- Gargle with warm salt water. It helps soothe the irritated throat and reduces swelling in the tissue. This is the safest, least expensive, and probably the most effective treatment for sore throat. Dissolve ½ teaspoon of salt into one cup (250 ml) of warm water. Gargle with a big sip of the the solution for 5-10 seconds and then spit it out. Repeat until the cup of warm salt water is finished. Do this every every 2 hours, or more often if possible. Throat lozenges may also help.
- Sip warm liquids. Sipping warm liquids like hot tea or hot broth can soothe the throat, and the heat increases circulation to the throat to promote healing. The saltiness of the soup also helps to reduce swelling, much like a salt water gargle.
- Rest your voice. Avoid using your voice for long periods and refrain from screaming or yelling.
- Suck on hard candy. Hard candy can soothe and lubricate your throat. Buckwheat honey has been shown to decrease cough in children; try out a few teaspoons in a cup of tea or hot water to see if it works for you.
- Humidify. Hot, dry air can cause or aggravate a sore throat. Humidity will provide relief to a dry throat. Increase the humidity in your home with a humidifier, a pan of water near a heat source, by drying your clothes on a rack indoors, or by turning on a hot shower to create steam.
- Consider medications. Over-the-counter pain relievers such as acetaminophen (e.g. Tylenol), ASA (e.g. Aspirin) and Ibuprofen (e.g. Motrin, Advil) can reduce fever and the pain of a sore throat. Because Aspirin use with young children and adolescents has been linked to a serious disease called Reye’s Syndrome, it should not be used by individuals younger than 19 years of age. Instead, use Acetaminophen or Ibuprofen. If allergies are causing your sore throat, an antihistamine will stop mucus from dripping down your throat and irritating the tissues. If possible, stay in environments where the allergen is filtered out. Some effective antihistamines are Claritin, Reactine, and Dimetapp. Be aware that they may cause drowsiness.
Remember, the vast majority of sore throats are caused by a virus. Antibiotics are medications that kill bacteria: They have no effect on viruses. Therefore, antibiotics should only be used in cases where a bacterial cause is suspected, most notably strep throat.
The consequences of the overuse of antibiotics include antibiotic resistance, which is a serious threat to global public health. This occurs when bacteria become resistant to antibiotics that are used when they are not needed. Do not pressure your doctor into giving you a prescription for antibiotics if he or she determines that it is not necessary.
If your sore throat is caused by a bacterial infection and your doctor prescribes an antibiotic, it is imperative that you take the full course of the medication, even if you start feeling better. If you stop the antibiotic too soon, some bacteria will survive and may develop resistance to the medication.
For most people, a sore throat will be fought off by their body’s immune system. You should go see your health professional if:
- your temperature is 39ºC or higher
- you notice white patches in the back of your throat
- breathing or swallowing is very difficult
- lymph nodes in your neck are hard, swollen, or tender
- you have a skin rash
- you were recently exposed to the Strep A bacteria (e.g. a friend tested positive for Strep A);
- you have an earache or joint pains
- pain is severe and lasts for more than a few days
- you are concerned that you may have a sexually transmitted infection in your throat such as gonnorhea. Gonococcal pharyngitis is transmitted through oral sex with an infected partner. If you suspect that you may have this type of infection, it is important to be tested and treated because you can pass gonorrhea on to your partner(s).
The things you can do to prevent getting or spreading the germs that cause a sore throat are the same things that prevent getting or spreading a cold or the flu.
- Wash your hands regularly and properly
- Always cover your cough or a sneeze, but not with your hands. Obviously, if you cough or sneeze into your hands the viruses get on them and you spread them to everything you touch. Instead, cough or sneeze into a tissue. If a tissue isn’t available, you can cough into the fold of your elbow or even into your armpit. For a humorous look at effective coughing and sneezing techniques watch the Cough Safe video.
- Avoid touching your hands to your face. By touching your face you risk bringing the germs on your hand into your respiratory tract, where they need to reach to cause a sore throat.