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Viruses, like those that cause colds or flu
The bacteria group A strep, which causes strep throat (also called streptococcal pharyngitis)
Smoking or exposure to secondhand smoke
Of these, infections from viruses are the most common cause of sore throats.
Strep throat is an infection in the throat and tonsils caused by bacteria called group A Streptococcus (also called Streptococcus pyogenes).
Symptoms of Sore Throat
A sore throat can make it painful to swallow.
A sore throat can also feel dry and scratchy.
Sore throat can be a symptom of strep throat, the common cold, allergies, or other upper respiratory tract illness.
The following symptoms suggest a virus is the cause of the illness instead of the bacteria called group A strep:
Hoarseness (changes in your voice that makes it sound breathy, raspy, or strained)
Conjunctivitis (also called pink eye)
Symptoms of sore throat, whether caused by viruses or by the bacteria called group A strep, can often be similar.
Symptoms of Strep Throat
Sore throat that can start very quickly
Pain when swallowing
Red and swollen tonsils, sometimes with white patches or streaks of pus
Tiny red spots on the roof of the mouth
Swollen lymph nodes in the front of the neck
Sometimes someone with strep throat also has a rash known as scarlet fever (also called scarlatina).
When to Seek Medical Care
See a doctor if you or your child have symptoms of strep throat. You or your child may need to be tested for strep throat.
Also see a doctor if you or your child have any of the following:
Blood in saliva or phlegm
Excessive drooling (in young children)
Joint swelling and pain
This list is not all-inclusive. Please see your doctor for any symptom that is severe or concerning.
Follow up with a doctor if symptoms do not improve within a few days, get worse, or if you or your child have recurrent sore throats.
A doctor will determine what type of illness you have by asking about symptoms and doing a physical examination. Sometimes they will also swab your throat.
Since bacteria cause strep throat, antibiotics are needed to treat the infection and prevent rheumatic fever and other complications.
A doctor cannot tell if someone has strep throat just by looking in the throat. If your doctor thinks you might have strep throat, they can do a test to determine if it is the cause of your illness.
Anyone with strep throat should stay home from work, school, or daycare until they no longer have fever AND have taken antibiotics for at least 24 hours.
If a sore throat is caused by a virus, antibiotics will not help. Most sore throats will get better on their own within one week. Your doctor 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 minor issues, like a rash, to very serious health problems, such as antibiotic-resistant infections and C. diff infection, which 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 2 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 doctor or pharmacist 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
Be careful about giving over-the-counter medicines to children.
Not all over-the-counter medicines are recommended for children of certain ages.
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, a rare but very serious illness that harms the liver and brain.
Cough and cold medicines:
Children younger than 4 years old: do not use unless a doctor specifically tells you to. Use of over-the-counter cough and cold medicines in young children can result in serious and potentially life-threatening side effects.
Children 4 years or older: discuss with your child’s doctor if over-the-counter cough and cold medicines are safe to give to your child for temporary symptom relief.
Be sure to ask your doctor or pharmacist about the right dosage of over-the-counter medicines for your child’s age and size.
Also, tell your child’s doctor and pharmacist about all prescription and over-the-counter medicines they are taking.
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.