Infections from viruses or bacteria are the main cause of sore throats and can make it difficult to talk and breathe. Allergies and sinus infections can also contribute to a sore throat. If you have a sore throat that lasts for more than five to seven days you should see your doctor. While increasing your liquid intake, gargling with warm salt water or taking over the counter pain relievers may help, if appropriate, your doctor may write you a prescription for an antibiotic.
Whenever a sore throat is severe, persists longer than the usual five-to-seven day duration of a cold or flu, and is not associated with an avoidable allergy or irritation, you should seek medical attention. The following signs and symptoms should alert you to see your physician:
- Severe and prolonged sore throat
- Difficulty breathing
- Difficulty swallowing
- Difficulty opening the mouth
- Joint pain
- Fever (over 101°)
- Blood in saliva or phlegm
- Frequently recurring sore throat
- Lump in neck
- Hoarseness lasting over two weeks
To test for strep throat, your doctor may want to do a throat culture, a non-surgical procedure that uses an instrument to take a sampling of the infected cells. Because the culture will not detect other infections, when it is negative, your physician will base his/her decision for treatment on the severity of your symptoms and the appearance of your throat on examination.
A mild sore throat associated with cold or flu symptoms can be made more comfortable with the following remedies:
- Increase your liquid intake.
- Warm tea with honey is a favorite home remedy.
- Use a steamer or humidifier in your bedroom.
- Gargle with warm salt water several times daily: ¼ tsp. salt to ½ cup water.
- Take over-the-counter pain relievers such as acetaminophen (Tylenol Sore Throat®, Tempra®) or ibuprofen (Motrin IB®, Advil®).
If you have a bacterial infection your doctor will prescribe an antibiotic to alleviate your symptoms. Antibiotics are drugs that kill or impair bacteria. Penicillin or erythromycin (well-known antibiotics) are prescribed when the physician suspects streptococcal or another bacterial infection that responds to them. However, a number of bacterial throat infections require other antibiotics instead.
Antibiotics do not cure viral infections, but viruses do lower the patient’s resistance to bacterial infections. When such a combined infection occurs, antibiotics may be recommended. When an antibiotic is prescribed, it should be taken as the physician directs for the full course (usually 7-10 days). Otherwise the infection may not be completely eliminated, and could return. Some children will experience recurrent infection despite antibiotic treatment. When some of these are strep infections or are severe, your child may be a candidate for a tonsillectomy.
- Avoid smoking or exposure to secondhand smoke. Tobacco smoke, whether primary or secondary, contains hundreds of toxic chemicals that can irritate the throat lining.
- If you have seasonal allergies or ongoing allergic reactions to dust, molds, or pet dander, you’re more likely to develop a sore throat than people who don’t have allergies.
- Avoid exposure to chemical irritants. Particulate matter in the air from the burning of fossil fuels, as well as common household chemicals, can cause throat irritation.
- If you experience chronic or frequent sinus infections you are more likely to experience a sore throat, since drainage from nose or sinus infections can cause throat infections as well.
- If you live or work in close quarters such as a child care center, classroom, office, prison, or military installation, you are at greater risk because viral and bacterial infections spread easily in environments where people are in close proximity.
- Maintain good hygiene. Do not share napkins, towels, and utensils with an infected person. Wash your hands regularly with soap or a sanitizing gel, for 10-15 seconds.
If you have HIV or diabetes, are undergoing steroid treatment or chemotherapy, are experiencing extreme fatigue or have a poor diet, you have reduced immunity and are more susceptible to infections.