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sore throat

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A sore throat is an inflammation or infection of the pharynx. The pharynx is the part of the throat between the tonsils and the larynx, or voice box.

What is going on in the body?
A sore throat usually comes on suddenly, and is called acute. Some people have an ongoing, or chronic, form of the condition.

What are the signs and symptoms of the condition?
The symptoms of a sore throat include:
  • pain when swallowing
  • difficulty swallowing
  • fever
  • difficulty speaking, usually caused by an inflammation of the voice box known as laryngitis
  • inflammation of the mucous membranes in the back of the throat
  • white patches in the back of the throat, if the sore throat is caused by bacteria
  • tender, swollen lymph nodes in the neck
What are the causes and risks of the condition?
A sore throat can occur in viral infections such as the common cold, influenza, and infectious mononucleosis. Another cause may be bacteria such as Group A streptococcus. This kind of sore throat is often called strep throat.

Sexually transmitted diseases such as gonorrhoea can cause sore throat. A chronic sore throat may be caused by constant irritation from smoking, breathing heavily polluted air, consuming too much alcohol, or by swallowing substances that scald or scratch the throat.

What can be done to prevent the condition?
Avoiding irritation of the throat can sometimes prevent a sore throat.

How is the condition diagnosed?
A throat culture can determine if a sore throat is viral or bacterial.

What are the long-term effects of the condition?
Untreated strep throat may lead to rheumatic fever. Rheumatic fever is an inflammation of the joints and the heart resulting from a streptococcal infection. Some types of sore throat may cause difficulty breathing due to swelling, or the formation of abscesses.

What are the risks to others?
A sore throat caused by Group A Streptococcus is contagious. A sore throat caused by a sexually transmitted disease also contagious.

What are the treatments for the condition?
A sore throat caused by a virus is treated only to relieve symptoms. Antibiotics do not have any effect on viruses. A warm salt-water gargle and throat lozenges can help reduce pain and inflammation. Over-the-counter analgesias such as paracetamol can be used to treat pain and fever. Children under 12 with a suspected viral infection should never be given aspirin, because of the risk of a complication known as Reye's syndrome. The person should drink plenty of liquids.

A sore throat caused by bacteria is treated with antibiotics. The full course of antibiotics should be taken, even if the symptoms improve before the medication is gone.

A chronic sore throat is treated by eliminating the cause of the inflammation.

What are the side effects of the treatments?
Antibiotics may cause stomach upset, diarrhoea, or an allergic reaction.

What happens after treatment for the condition?
Sore throats usually clear up within a few days.

How is the condition monitored?
Any new or worsening symptoms should be reported to the doctor.

Author: Dr. Karen Wolfe, MBBS, MA
Reviewer: HealthAnswers Australia Medical Review Panel
Editor: Dr David Taylor, Chief Medical Officer HealthAnswers Australia
Last Updated: 1/10/2001
Potential conflict of interest information for reviewers available on request

This website and article is not a substitute for independent professional advice. Nothing contained in this website is intended to be used as medical advice and it is not intended to be used to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease, nor should it be used for therapeutic purposes or as a substitute for your own health professional's advice.  All Health and any associated parties do not accept any liability for any injury, loss or damage incurred by use of or reliance on the information.


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