It can be an annoying little tickle or a sign that your body is fighting something off. Viral infections, bacterial infections, allergies, injuries – all can cause one. Doctors often call it pharyngitis, but you know exactly what you have: a sore throat.

Sore throats are painful, persistent and no fun at all. Most of the time, with a little self-care, a bit of over-the-counter medication and some help from your doctor, your sore throat will get better fast. But sometimes you need more help to feel better.

Your symptoms can help clue you in to what may be causing your sore throat. We’ll go into what sore throats are, what causes them and what symptoms to keep your eyes on. Plus, we’ll give you some time-tested remedies, medications and treatments, as well as what will signal a call to your doctor.

What is a sore throat, or pharyngitis?

Also known as your pharynx, your throat does a lot of work. It’s the tube that carries food down from your mouth to your esophagus and stomach. Your body also uses it to move air from your nose and mouth to your windpipe and lungs.

Plenty happens in your throat, and most of the time, it all works without you even thinking about it. But since your throat is used for so much, it’s one of the first places you can notice something’s wrong with your body.

The lining of your throat is pretty sensitive – anything that doesn’t belong there will irritate and inflame it, whether it’s lots of mucus coming down from your nose, acid coming up from your stomach or irritants in the air you breathe. The resulting irritation gives you that dry, painful feeling that makes it hard to swallow and hurt to talk or even move. And until that irritation is gone and your throat starts to heal, that soreness and pain can make you miserable.

A big thing to keep in mind is that a sore throat isn’t a disease or condition on its own – it’s usually a sign that something else is wrong. When a sore throat happens, looking at your other symptoms will help you and your doctor zero in on what larger illness may be causing it. Once you know why you have a sore throat, you and your doctor can take the right course of action to get you feeling better.

Viral and bacterial sore throat causes

There are three main categories of sore throat culprits: viral, bacterial, and irritations and injuries. Fortunately, the vast majority of these are common, treatable and easy to bounce back from.

Viral causes of a sore throat

With viruses flying around us every day, don’t be surprised if your sore throat is caused by one of these viruses:

  • The common cold or flu
  • COVID-19
  • Laryngitis, an infection of the voice box
  • Mononucleosis, also known as mono
  • Mumps, which can cause swelling and pain in the glands between your neck and your jaw
  • Herpangina, caused by the coxsackievirus (the same virus behind hand-foot-and-mouth disease), that can create painful sores in the mouth and throat

Sore throat caused by bacteria

Your throat and the parts of your body that surround it are warm, moist and full of good food for bacteria. So, it’s no surprise that bacterial infections like these are also behind sore throats:

  • Throat infections like strep throat
  • Tonsils that are inflamed or infected (symptoms also described as tonsillitis)
  • Inflammation or infection of the adenoids (adenoiditis), which are glands in the throat that help to trap harmful bacteria and viruses
  • Infection of the tissues around the tonsils – we call it peritonsillar abscess, while it’s known as quinsy elsewhere
  • Inflammations of the epiglottis (epiglottitis), which is cartilage at the back of your throat, or uvula (uvulitis), the teardrop-shaped tissue that hangs at the back of your throat
  • Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) like oral gonorrhea

If you’re not experiencing other symptoms and you’re able to rule out a bacterial or viral infection causing your sore throat, it may be caused by something else, like an irritation or an injury.

If you’re not sure what exactly is causing your sore throat, it may be helpful to think about a few things that you can try to answer yourself or discuss with your doctor.

1. Does your throat only hurt at certain times of the day?

Maybe your throat only hurts at a certain time of the day, like when you wake up. Some things that can cause a sore throat in the morning include:

  • Snoring while sleeping when you typically breathe through your mouth
  • Dry air with low humidity that causes saliva to dry up in your throat
  • Acid reflux when lying down, where your stomach acids and other stomach contents go up into your esophagus, which connects your stomach to your throat

2. Is your throat frequently sore while you’re indoors?

It may be surprising, but the air quality inside your house could be causing your sore throat. Some causes of sore throat or throat irritation inside your home include:

  • Mold exposure
  • Exposure to any type of smoke, but most commonly tobacco smoke
  • Vaping, which contains chemicals that can dry out your throat
  • Allergies to cats or dogs where their fur, skin, saliva or urine causes you to have an allergic reaction
  • Allergies to dust mites, the tiny bugs that live in household dust
  • Exposure to formaldehyde, which can be in building materials or furniture
  • Inhaling household products like bleach or other cleaning products

Exposure to carbon monoxide in your home can cause a sore throat, but it can also be fatal. If you think you’ve been exposed to carbon monoxide, leave your home and call 911 immediately.

3. When you’re outside, does your throat hurt?

If your throat hurts when you step outside, there are several possible causes that could depend on where you live. Causes of a sore throat when you’re outside can include:

  • Allergies to pollen, ragweed or other common outdoor allergens
  • Exposure to any type of smoke, but most commonly tobacco smoke
  • Air pollution from carbon monoxide, ozone and other air pollutants
  • Cold, dry air in the winter
  • Low humidity

4. Did you injure your throat?

While the most common causes of throat pain are bacterial, viral and environmental, an injury can cause a sore throat too. Common injuries that cause a sore throat include:

  • Straining your throat by yelling, talking loudly at a party, or constant cheering at a game or concert
  • Swallowing a piece of dry food that scratches or scrapes the side of your throat

5. Where and when else are you experiencing throat pain?

Some other things you could ask yourself and share with your doctor may include:

  • Does it hurt all the time or only when you swallow or touch your throat?
  • Is it a dull pain or an occasional sharp pain?
  • Does it hurt near the top of your throat? The middle? Everywhere?
  • What other symptoms do you have? Stuffy nose, fever or headache? Something else?

Once you step back and take note of how your sore throat feels and what else is happening to your body, you can get a better idea of what’s causing it, how to treat it and when to get your doctor involved.

How long does a sore throat last?

It all depends on what is causing your sore throat. If it’s due to a cold, the flu or other virus, it should be over when the illness is over – plan for a cold- or flu-related sore throat to get better within a week. Bacterial infections can be more persistent.

Fortunately, if your doctor prescribes antibiotics, your sore throat should clear up within days after you start taking them. (And be sure to keep taking your antibiotics as prescribed even if you feel better.) Sore throats due to injury will heal in time, but sore throats from irritations like allergies and acid reflux last as long as the underlying illnesses do.

Sore throats and COVID-19

We mentioned COVID-19 as one of the viral illnesses that can cause a sore throat. But as we previously covered, a sore throat has many potential causes. Rather than assuming the tickle in your throat is COVID-19, check to see if you have at least one other symptom:

  • Fever with a body temperature of 100°F (37.78°C) or higher
  • Chills
  • Headache
  • Dry, persistent, sometimes severe cough
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Muscle pain or body aches
  • Fatigue
  • Sudden loss of taste or smell
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting or nausea

If you do, get tested and contact your doctor right away for next steps. The sooner you know you have COVID-19, the sooner you can take medications and treatments to help you through the worst of the symptoms and get you feeling better faster. Knowing if you have COVID-19 can also help protect your friends and family as well. For the latest information, check out our COVID-19 page.

Sore throat remedies and treatments – at home and on the go

It’s good to know why you have a sore throat and what caused it. But none of that really matters if you’re in the thick of suffering a fiery pharynx. Here are our recommended ways to get relief.

Fast sore throat remedies during the day

Whether you’re resting at home or wrestling with a sore throat as you go about your day, there are some quick and long-term ways to get relief.

Use medicated throat sprays or lozenges

These use medicines like local anesthetics to numb your throat, which can help with pain and irritation. If you use lozenges, resist the urge to chew them like candy. Instead, slowly let them dissolve in your mouth so you can get the most relief possible.

Gargle with warm salt water

Dissolve 1/2 teaspoon of salt in one cup of warm water. Take a sip, gargle and swallow until it’s gone. Repeat often throughout the day to tamp down the swelling and irritation inside your throat.

Have food and drinks that are easy on your throat

Drink plenty of water, juice and other non-carbonated beverages. Mix it up with hot tea, hot chocolate and soup as well. And as far as cool, soothing foods go, popsicles, ice cream and yogurt are all helpful options.

Take an over-the-counter pain reliever

Using ibuprofen, acetaminophen or cycling between the two will help with the pain. If you’re over the age of 20, you can also use aspirin. If you’re unsure of what over-the-counter pain relief you may need, contact your doctor for guidance.

Taming your sore throat overnight

When you’re in bed and trying to sleep, a sore throat can keep you wide awake. Here are some ways to reduce the pain and irritation so you can get some rest:

Take a nighttime decongestant

Specially made nighttime decongestants (either on their own or included with cold and flu medicine) can help keep your throat from being irritated by nasal drainage as you rest. Just follow the instructions on the label to make sure you’re taking the right amount of decongestant for your age.

Also check the label to see if your decongestant or cold and flu medicine includes medications like acetaminophen. There’s a risk of accidental overdose if you take pain medication and cold medicine that includes the same pain reliever as an ingredient.

Keep in mind that some over-the-counter cold and flu medications aren’t recommended if you’re prescribed certain medications, like for high blood pressure. Talk to your doctor about potential drug-drug interactions before you take any cold or flu medicine.

Use a vaporizer or humidifier

Moist, humid air can help your throat recover throughout the night. Set it up in your bedroom as you sleep and in other rooms throughout the day.

Try your daytime relief at night

If you find yourself awake, bring yourself back to sleep with some cool water, warm tea or maybe a quick midnight popsicle.

When to call your doctor for a sore throat

Taking care of your sore throat on your own is good for a few days. But if you’re still fighting your sore throat after 2-3 days, it might be time to make an appointment with your primary care doctor.

Your doctor will check out your throat, ask you questions about the symptoms you’ve been having and possibly test you for strep throat. If the test comes back positive, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics to help you fight the bacterial infection. Otherwise, your doctor might prescribe other medications to help your symptoms.

If your sore throat feels unbearable, or if you also have a high fever, swollen lymph nodes in your neck or a rash, head to your local urgent care clinic. If you find yourself having trouble breathing or experiencing severe pain, call 911 immediately.

Preventing future sore throats

Of course, you can’t always avoid a sore throat. But with the right knowledge and good awareness of your body, you can be prepared when one comes your way.

It sounds simple, but the best way to prevent getting a sore throat in the future is to not get sick in the first place. You can reduce your risk by washing your hands or using hand sanitizer, along with regularly sanitizing commonly used surfaces like door handles and countertops. Also, if you can, avoid contact with people who have colds or are otherwise ill.

Tobacco and vape smoke are also notorious for causing and intensifying sore throats. If you haven’t quit already, think about quitting soon. And, try to avoid secondhand smoke indoors and outdoors.

Virtuwell, our 24/7 online clinic, can help diagnose and treat over 60 common conditions, including throat pain and throat infection, so you can start feeling better, sooner. You can also make an appointment to see your primary care doctor so they can diagnose you and discuss treatment options.