Sore Throat Basics

Key points

  • Is it painful to swallow? Or is your throat scratchy? A virus may be causing your sore throat.
  • Most sore throats are caused by viruses.
  • Most sore throats, except for strep throat, do not need antibiotics.


Viruses, like those that cause colds or flu, are the most common cause of sore throat. These viruses are not strep throat. Sore throat can be a symptom of strep throat, the common cold, allergies or other upper respiratory tract illness. Most sore throats will get better on their own within one week.

Anatomy of the mouth, showing inflamed tonsils in a sore throat.
A healthy throat and a sore throat, including uvula and tongue, showing inflamed tonsils.

Signs and symptoms

  • Painful to swallow.
  • Dry and scratchy throat.

Sore throat caused by a virus or the bacteria called group A Streptococcus can have similar symptoms. Sometimes the following symptoms suggest a virus is causing the illness instead of strep throat:

  • Cough
  • Runny nose
  • Hoarseness (changes in your voice that make it sound breathy, raspy, or strained)
  • Conjunctivitis (also called pink eye)

Visit the Strep Throat webpage for more information on symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment of strep throat.


Viruses, like those that cause colds or flu, are the most common cause of sore throat. These viruses are not strep throat.

Other causes of sore throat include:

  • The bacteria group A Streptococcus, which causes strep throat (also called streptococcal pharyngitis).
  • Allergies.
  • Smoking or exposure to secondhand smoke.


You can help prevent sore throat by doing your best to stay healthy and keep others healthy, including:

  • Clean your hands.
  • Avoid close contact with people who have sore throats, colds or other upper respiratory infections.
  • Don't smoke and avoid exposure to secondhand smoke.

When to seek medical care

Talk to your healthcare provider if you or your child have symptoms of sore throat. They may need to test you or your child for strep throat.

Also, see a healthcare provider if you or your child have any of the following:

  • Difficulty breathing.
  • Difficulty swallowing.
  • Blood in saliva or phlegm.
  • Excessive drooling (in young children).
  • Dehydration.
  • Joint swelling and pain.
  • Rash.
  • Symptoms that do not improve within a few days or get worse.

This list is not all-inclusive. Please see your healthcare provider for any symptom that is severe or concerning. Tell your healthcare provider if you or your child have recurrent sore throats.

Talk to your healthcare provider right away‎

If your child is under 3 months old with a fever of 100.4 °F (38 °C) or higher.


Your healthcare provider will determine what type of illness you have by asking about symptoms and doing a physical examination. Sometimes they will also swab your throat.


If a virus causes a sore throat, antibiotics will not help. Most sore throats will get better on their own within one week. Your healthcare provider may prescribe other medicine or give you tips to help you feel better.

When antibiotics aren't needed, they won't help you, and their side effects could still cause harm. Side effects can range from mild reactions, like a rash, to more serious health problems. These problems can include severe allergic reactions, antimicrobial-resistant infections and C. diff infection. C. diff causes diarrhea that can lead to severe colon damage and death.

How to feel better

  • Suck on ice chips, popsicles or lozenges (do not give lozenges to children younger than 4 years).
  • Use a clean humidifier or cool mist vaporizer.
  • Gargle with salt water.
  • Drink warm beverages and plenty of fluids.
  • Use honey to relieve cough for adults and children at least 1 year of age or older.
  • Ask your healthcare provider about over-the-counter medicines that can help you feel better. Always use over-the-counter medicines as directed.

Over-the-counter medicine and children

Carefully read and follow instructions on over-the-counter medicine product labels before giving medicines to children. Some over-the-counter medicines are not recommended for children of certain ages.

  • Pain relievers:
    • Children younger than 6 months: only give acetaminophen.
    • Children 6 months or older: it is OK to give acetaminophen or ibuprofen.
    • Never give aspirin to children because it can cause Reye’s syndrome. Reye’s syndrome is a very serious, but rare illness that can harm the liver and brain.
  • Cough and cold medicines:
    • Children younger than 4 years old: do not use over-the-counter cough and cold medicines in young children unless a healthcare provider specifically tells you to. Cough and cold medicines can result in serious and sometimes life-threatening side effects in young children.
    • Children 4 years or older: discuss with your child’s healthcare provider if over-the-counter cough and cold medicines are safe to give to your child.

Ask your healthcare provider about the right dosage of over-the-counter medicines for your child's age and size. Also, tell your child's healthcare provider about all prescription and over-the-counter medicines they are taking.


Chart showing if an antibiotic is needed for common respiratory infections.
Viruses or Bacteria What's got you sick?

For more on treatment of common illnesses, visit CDC resources: