Sore throat - Treatment 

Treating a sore throat 

Urgent medical advice

Your GP will usually recommend that you look after your sore throat at home. However, seek urgent medical attention if you develop any of these symptoms:

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

Visit your nearest accident and emergency (A&E) department or, if this is not possible, call 999 for an ambulance.

Sore throats are not usually serious and the condition often passes in three to seven days. There are some treatments you can use at home to relieve your symptoms.

Painkillers

For treating sore throats, over-the-counter painkillers (analgesics), such as paracetamol or ibuprofen, are usually recommended. These may also help reduce a fever (high temperature).

You should not take aspirin or ibuprofen if you have (or have had in the past) stomach problems such as a peptic ulcer, or liver or kidney problems.

Children under 16 years of age should never be given aspirin.

Take painkillers as necessary to relieve your pain. Always read the manufacturer’s instructions so you do not exceed the recommended or prescribed dose.

Self-care tips

If you or someone in your family has a sore throat, the tips below may help relieve the symptoms:

  • Avoid food or drink that is too hot as this could irritate your throat.
  • Eat cool, soft food and drink cool or warm liquids.
  • Adults and older children can suck lozenges, hard sweets, ice cubes or ice lollies.
  • Avoid smoking and smoky environments.
  • Regularly gargle with a mouthwash of warm, salty water to reduce any swelling or pain.
  • Drink enough fluids, especially if you have a high temperature (fever).

Antibiotics

The use of antibiotics is not usually recommended for treating sore throats. This is because:

  • Most sore throats are not caused by bacteria.
  • Even if your sore throat is caused by bacteria, antibiotics have very little effect on the severity of the symptoms and how long they last, and may cause unpleasant side effects.
  • Overusing antibiotics to treat minor ailments can make them less effective in the treatment of life-threatening conditions.

Antibiotics are usually only prescribed if:

  • your sore throat is particularly severe
  • you are at increased risk of a severe infection, for example because you have a weakened immune system due to HIV or diabetes (a long-term condition caused by too much glucose in the blood)
  • you are at risk of having a weakened immune system, for example because you are taking a medication that can cause this, such as carbimazole (to treat an overactive thyroid gland)
  • you have a history of rheumatic fever (a condition that can cause widespread inflammation throughout the body)
  • you have valvular heart disease (a disease affecting the valves in your heart, which control blood flow)
  • you experience repeated infections caused by the group A streptococcus bacteria

Tonsillectomy

A tonsillectomy is a surgical procedure to remove the tonsils (the two lumps of tissue on either side of your throat). If your child has repeated infections of the tonsils (tonsillitis), a tonsillectomy may be considered.

Read more about treating tonsilitis.

Persistent sore throat

If you have a persistent sore throat (a sore throat that lasts three to four weeks), your GP may refer you for further tests. This is because your sore throat may be a symptom of a more serious condition. Some possibilities are described below.

Glandular fever

If you are 15-25 years of age with a persistent sore throat, you may have glandular fever (also known as infectious mononucleosis). This is a type of viral infection with symptoms that can last up to six weeks. 

Cancer

A persistent sore throat can also be a symptom of some types of cancer, such as oropharyngeal cancer (cancer of part of the throat). This type of cancer is rare and mainly affects people over 50 years of age. In the UK every year, 5,300 people are diagnosed with cancer of the oropharynx (the area at the back of your throat) or mouth.

Read more about mouth cancer.

Preventing a sore throat

As sore throats are caused by bacterial or viral infections, they can be difficult to prevent.
If you have a sore throat caused by an infection, you can help prevent the infection spreading by practising good hygiene, such as washing your hands regularly and keeping surfaces clean and free of germs.

Giving up smoking

If you smoke, giving up will reduce irritation to your throat and strengthen your defences against infection.
The NHS Smoking Helpline can offer you advice and encouragement to help you quit smoking. You can call the helpline free of charge on 0800 022 4 332 or visit the NHS Smokefree website.

Your GP or pharmacist will also be able to give you help and advice about giving up smoking, or you can read more about quitting smoking.


Page last reviewed: 11/05/2012

Next review due: 11/05/2014

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At-risk groups

If you fall into one of the at-risk groups (see Sore throat – symptoms), see your GP. This includes anyone with a weakened immune system (the body’s defence system), either because of a medical condition or due to medication you are taking.

Your GP will seek specialist advice for you. Do not stop taking any prescribed medication unless your GP advises you to do so.

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