Introduction 

A sore throat (pharyngitis) is normally a symptom of a bacterial or viral infection, such as the common cold. In around a third of cases, no cause for the sore throat can be found.

If you have a sore throat, you may also have:

If your sore throat is caused by bacteria or a virus, you may also experience symptoms associated with common infectious conditions, such as:

  • a high temperature (fever) of 38C (100.4F) or over
  • aching muscles or tiredness
  • a headache
  • a cough
  • a runny nose

Read more about the causes of a sore throat.

Treating a sore throat

Sore throats are common, especially in children and teenagers. This is because young people have not built up resistance (immunity) against many of the viruses and bacteria that can cause sore throats.

Most sore throats are not serious and usually pass without the need for medical treatment. Over-the-counter painkillers, such as paracetamol or ibuprofen, and self-care tips can usually help to relieve the symptoms of a sore throat without the need to see a GP.

Antibiotics are not usually prescribed for a sore throat, unless it is particularly severe or you are considered at risk of a more serious infection.

Read more detailed information about treating a sore throat.

How long will a sore throat last?

A recent UK study looked at people who book a GP appointment for a sore throat (probably those with worse symptoms). The results found:

  • in 50% of cases, moderately bad symptoms of a sore throat had settled seven days after the onset of the illness
  • in 80% of cases, moderately bad symptoms of a sore throat had gone after 10 days

When to seek medical help

Make an appointment to see your GP if:

  • you have a persistent high temperature above 38C (100.4F), which does not go down after taking medication
  • your symptoms do not improve within a week

It's important to investigate the cause of your temperature because it may be the result of a more serious condition, such as:

  • epiglottitis  swelling and redness (inflammation) of the epiglottis (the flap of tissue at the back of the throat, underneath the tongue); if left untreated, it can cause breathing difficulties
  • quinsy  an abscess (a painful collection of pus) that develops between the back of the tonsil and the wall of the throat, usually caused by a bout of severe tonsillitis

Blood tests may be carried out if your GP suspects you have a type of viral infection called glandular fever (also known as infectious mononucleosis).

Emergency medical care

Contact your GP, local out-of-hours service or NHS 111 as soon as possible if you have a sore throat and you:

  • are in severe pain
  • have difficulty breathing
  • are making a high-pitched sound as you breathe (stridor)
  • start drooling
  • have a muffled voice
  • have difficulty swallowing (dysphagia) or are not able to swallow enough fluids

If your symptoms are very severe or getting worse quickly, visit your nearest accident and emergency (A&E) department or call 999 for an ambulance.

At-risk groups

While most sore throats can be treated at home, some people are more at risk than others of developing complications from a sore throat, and may need additional treatment.

See your GP at the first sign of infection if you:

  • have HIV and AIDS (a virus that attacks the body's immune system)
  • have leukaemia (cancer of the bone marrow)
  • have asplenia (when your spleen, an organ behind your stomach, does not work properly or has been removed)
  • have aplastic anaemia (when your bone marrow does not produce enough blood cells)
  • are receiving chemotherapy
  • are taking an immunosuppressant medicine (which stops your immune system working) – for example, because you have had an organ transplant
  • are taking an antithyroid medication (to stop your thyroid gland producing too many hormones), such as carbimazole
  • are taking a disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drug (DMARD) – for example, to treat arthritis (a common condition that causes inflammation in the joints and bones)



Tonsillitis

Tonsillitis is an infection of the tonsils, which are two small glands at the back of the throat behind the tongue. Learn how to spot the symptoms and find out who is most at risk.

Media last reviewed: 11/07/2013

Next review due: 11/07/2015

How to prevent germs from spreading

Cleaning and good hygiene tips to help reduce the number of germs in your home

Page last reviewed: 24/07/2014

Next review due: 24/07/2016