An Idiot's Guide to the Sore Throat

Everyone has had a sore throat at least at some point in his or her life, but do you actually know what causes it? This extremely common complaint in the medical clinic can range from a slight annoyance to a severe and distressing symptom. A sore throat will usually cause you pain and that may be the first thing one notices, but in most cases it will clear up on it’s own in three to four days. While you are recovering, there are things that can be done to make you more comfortable. This article contains the latest and most up to date evidence that explores the treatment options for the sore throat.

What actually is a sore throat?

One will complain of a sore throat when it is infected with a virus or bacteria. As you will be well aware the sore throat is extremely common and often is only one part of another illness, such as flu. What many people don’t know is that viruses are the most common cause of a sore throat and can often cause very severe pain. An example of this is glandular fever, which is caused by a virus. Unfortunately viruses do not respond to antibiotics and so you often have to just rest and take it easy until it passes. Sore throats can also be caused by bacteria and an example of this is strep throat, if this is not managed correctly then it can go on to cause more serious illness.


Usually people complain of a bad pain in the back of their throats and often say that it worsens when they try and swallow something. This can make eating and drinking difficult. If you open your mouth and look in the mirror you may notice that your throat seems red and swollen or you may even notice some patches of white in there, this is all consistent with infection. Another common symptom that goes along with sore throats is the feeling of nausea and people often say that they feel like throwing up. A high temperature is also very common in the setting of a sore throat. Other things that may go along with a sore throat are painful sinuses, swollen neck glands and/or a mucus producing cough.

So are their treatments that will help me with these symptoms?

Pain is usually the worst symptom and this can be dealt with in many cases through the use of simple pain medications that can be brought over the counter. In this case I am referring to medications such as paracetamol, ibuprofen or aspirin. If it is your child or grandchild who has the sore throat then you will be able to buy these medications in liquid from so that they will be able to take them. You must remember that all medications have side effects and in the case of ibuprofen and aspirin they can upset the lining of the stomach, which can result in stomach ulcers that can bleed. However this is unlikely to be a problem if you only take them for a few days while the pain persists. As always if the pain does persist longer than 3 days you should visit your family doctor. Paracetamol is not entirely harmless and can in fact cause damage to the liver if taken for long periods of time. Many people use paracetamol to readily these days and if pain is not really distressing you it is probably better to live with it for a little while then take pills every few hours. Also it is important to note that aspirin should not be given to children under 16 as it interferes with the way in which blood clots and young active children tend to get bumped around and cut more often than adults.

Now lots of people go to their doctor wanting antibiotics for a sore throat and many doctors will prescribe these. It is important to know that antibiotics only kill bacteria and do nothing against viruses. Unfortunately viruses, not bacteria cause 90% of throat infections and so for most people antibiotics will not work. Now your doctor has some tricks up his sleeve to tell whether a throat infection is caused by a virus or by a bacteria, however in most cases this is not known. Many people argue that the doctor should just give the antibiotics to everyone and then at least some people will get better quicker. There is a major problem with this called resistance. When antibiotics first came out there were hundreds of types that worked on almost every kind of bacteria out there. However the problem is that bacteria are very clever and can change themselves so that our antibiotics don’t work. In order to do this they need lots of exposure to the antibiotic so they can change and we are providing this for them by prescribing lots of antibiotic. Now there are a much smaller number of antibiotics that are effective and there are even some super bugs out there that even our most powerful antibiotics cant kill. The scary thing is that if the pattern continues in the way it is currently going, soon antibiotics will no longer be effective and then we will be in some serious trouble. Also even if you do have antibiotics they are not without side effects and some of the things that people complain of are an upset stomach, rash and diarrhea. Sometimes the best thing to deal with a sore throat is some homemade lemon and honey recipes.

Will it go away?

The answer to the vast majority of people is yes and in fact a sore throat is usually a problem that lasts no longer than a week. If you feel that your throat is really bad and has not cleared up after a few days you should see your doctor. One of the things that they might do is swab your throat for a bacteria called Streptococci, which if left untreated can go on to cause more serious problems. Bacteria and viruses are often very good at traveling long distances and in some cases you may find that although you started with a throat infection your voice is now hoarse, you get blocked sinuses and/or an ear infection. This is most likely related to your throat infection and may require a different type of treatment. You should see a previous blog on sinusitis if this is a problem for you. Some of the serious things that can present as a sore throat are rare but can be things such as a kidney infection, rheumatic fever, or an abscess pushing on the tonsils.

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