How to Treat a Sore Throat

Pharyngitis—what most of us call a sore throat—is usually caused by a virus, such as influenza or rhinovirus, the same virus that causes a cold. An uncomplicated sore throat generally lasts no longer than a week. Cold symptoms such as a cough, nasal congestion and red, irritated eyes may also be present. Less than 15 percent of sore throats are caused by streptococci bacteria (strep throat) or rare infections such as mononucleosis or hand-foot-and-mouth disease.

How it should be treated: If coldlike symptoms accompany your sore throat, a virus is the likely culprit and an antibiotic won’t help. Sore throats usually go away on their own with self-care.

What you can do: Nonprescription therapies, such as aspirin, acetaminophen, NSAIDs, nonmedicated lozenges and throat sprays with topical anesthetics, can help relieve the pain of an uncomplicated sore throat. Saltwater gargles, warm beverages like tea or chicken soup, cold drinks, frozen desserts like popsicles and ice cream (low-fat) and ice chips can ease symptoms. Drinking plenty of fluids and using a personal humidifier can help make sure that phlegm stays as thin as possible, to reduce your discomfort. Get plenty of rest, too.

When to call your doctor: If you have a severe sore throat with a persistent fever, night sweats, shivering, swollen tonsils, thick yellow/white mucus sticking to your tonsils or palate, a rash and/or tender lymph nodes, you may have strep throat. Your doctor may prescribe an antibiotic to treat the infection and prevent complications, such as rheumatic fever. See your doctor if your sore throat lasts longer than a week. If you have difficulty swallowing, breathing or opening your mouth; swelling of the tongue or neck; a stiff neck; or a rash, call your doctor immediately.

If you use any prescription or over-the- counter (OTC) drugs, ask your doctor or pharmacist whether they’ll interact with any of the suggested treatments. Carefully read and follow the directions on drug labels and beware of a drug’s side effects. For example, certain antihistamines like Benadryl are not recommended for people over age 65 because they may cause drowsiness and dizziness.

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HealthAfter50 was published by the University of California, Berkeley, School of Public Health, providing up-to-date, evidence-based research and expert advice on the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of a wide range of health conditions affecting adults in middle age and beyond. It was previously part of Remedy Health Media's network of digital and print publications, which also include HealthCentral; HIV/AIDS resources The Body and The Body Pro; the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter; and the Berkeley Wellness website. All content from HA50 merged into in 2018.