Symptoms and causes


Symptoms of a sore throat can vary depending on the cause. Signs and symptoms might include:

  • Pain or a scratchy sensation in the throat
  • Pain that worsens with swallowing or talking
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Sore, swollen glands in your neck or jaw
  • Swollen, red tonsils
  • White patches or pus on your tonsils
  • Hoarse or muffled voice

Common infections causing a sore throat might result in other signs and symptoms, including:

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Runny nose
  • Sneezing
  • Body aches
  • Headache
  • Nausea or vomiting

When to see a doctor

Take your child to a doctor if your child's sore throat doesn't go away with the first drink in the morning, recommends the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Get immediate care if your child has severe signs such as:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Unusual drooling, which might indicate an inability to swallow

If you're an adult, see your doctor if you have a sore throat and any of the following associated problems occur, according to the American Academy of Otolaryngology:

  • A sore throat that is severe or lasts longer than a week
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Difficulty opening your mouth
  • Joint pain
  • Earache
  • Rash
  • Fever higher than 101 F (38.3 C)
  • Blood in saliva or phlegm
  • Frequently recurring sore throats
  • A lump in your neck
  • Hoarseness lasting more than two weeks


Viruses that cause the common cold and flu (influenza) also cause most sore throats. Less often, bacterial infections cause sore throats.

Viral infections

Viral illnesses that cause a sore throat include:

  • Common cold
  • Flu (influenza)
  • Mononucleosis (mono)
  • Measles
  • Chickenpox
  • Croup — a common childhood illness characterized by a harsh, barking cough

Bacterial infections

A number of bacterial infections can cause a sore throat. The most common is Streptococcus pyogenes, or group A streptococcus, which causes strep throat.

Other causes

Other causes of a sore throat include:

  • Allergies. Allergies to pet dander, molds, dust and pollen can cause a sore throat. The problem may be complicated by postnasal drip, which can irritate and inflame the throat.
  • Dryness. Dry indoor air, especially when buildings are heated, can make your throat feel rough and scratchy, particularly in the morning when you wake up. Breathing through your mouth — often because of chronic nasal congestion — also can cause a dry, sore throat.
  • Irritants. Outdoor air pollution can cause ongoing throat irritation. Indoor pollution — tobacco smoke or chemicals — also can cause a chronic sore throat. Chewing tobacco, drinking alcohol and eating spicy foods also can irritate your throat.
  • Muscle strain. You can strain muscles in your throat by yelling, such as at a sporting event; talking loudly; or talking for long periods without rest.
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). GERD is a digestive system disorder in which stomach acids or other contents of the stomach back up in the food pipe (esophagus). Other signs or symptoms may include heartburn, hoarseness, regurgitation of stomach contents and the sensation of a lump in your throat.
  • HIV infection. A sore throat and other flu-like symptoms sometimes appear early after someone is infected with HIV. Also, someone who is HIV-positive might have a chronic or recurring sore throat due to a secondary infection, such as a fungal infection called oral thrush and cytomegalovirus (CMV) infection, a common viral infection that can be serious in people with compromised immune systems.

    Both oral thrush and CMV can occur in anyone, but they're more likely to cause a sore throat and other symptoms in people with weakened immune systems.

  • Tumors. Cancerous tumors of the throat, tongue or voice box (larynx) can cause a sore throat. Other signs or symptoms may include hoarseness, difficulty swallowing, noisy breathing, a lump in the neck, and blood in saliva or phlegm.

Rarely, an infected area of tissue (abscess) in the throat causes a sore throat. Another rare cause of a sore throat is a condition that occurs when the small cartilage "lid" that covers the windpipe swells, blocking airflow (epiglottitis). Both causes can block the airway, creating a medical emergency.

Risk factors

Although anyone can get a sore throat, some factors make you more susceptible, including:

  • Age. Children and teens are most likely to develop sore throats. Children are also more likely to have strep throat, the most common bacterial infection associated with a sore throat.
  • Exposure to tobacco smoke. Smoking and secondhand smoke can irritate the throat. The use of tobacco products also increases the risk of cancers of the mouth, throat and voice box.
  • Allergies. Seasonal allergies or ongoing allergic reactions to dust, molds or pet dander, make developing a sore throat more likely.
  • Exposure to chemical irritants. Particles in the air from burning fossil fuels and common household chemicals can cause throat irritation.
  • Chronic or frequent sinus infections. Drainage from your nose can irritate your throat or spread infection.
  • Close quarters. Viral and bacterial infections spread easily anywhere people gather, whether in child care centers, classrooms, offices or airplanes.
  • Weakened immunity. You're more susceptible to infections in general if your resistance is low. Common causes of lowered immunity include HIV, diabetes, treatment with steroids or chemotherapy drugs, stress, fatigue, and poor diet.
April 27, 2016
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