Reviewed by Dr John Pillinger, GP
What is a sore throat?
A sore throat (also known as pharyngitis or tonsillitis) is a symptom of a disease affecting the pharynx or the area around the tonsils. It can be the result of an infection by a virus or bacteria. A sore throat may be symptomatic of the condition itself or one of a number of symptoms realting to a wider illness such as flu and glandular fever.
The disease is most commonly seen in children and young people but it can occur at any age. The characteristics of the symptom are throat pain and trouble swallowing. If the sore throat is due to bacterial infection it can be treated with antibiotics. Usually there are no complications.
How do you contract a sore throat?
By being infected by a virus or bacteria.
Infection by a virus causing a sore throat may come from a variety of sources, including the common cold virus, influenza and the Epstein-Barr virus – the cause of glandular fever. Viral infection originates from airborne droplets from coughing and sneezing and from not washing hands that can carry the infection from person to person.
Among the bacteria that cause sore throats, the streptococcus group A is the most common. The incubation period between picking up the infection until the disease breaks out, is up to four days.
- If signs of a sore throat persist for more than a few days or are severe with marked difficulty in swallowing, high fever, a rash or vomiting, then your GP should be consulted.
- Warm drinks and soft food may ease swallowing problems.
- Drink plenty of fluids.
What are the signs of a sore throat?
- Pain in the throat and difficulty in swallowing.
- Pain may spread to the ears.
- The throat is reddish, the tonsils are swollen and may be coated.
- Possibly a high temperature.
- Swollen lymph nodes under your jaw and in your neck may occur.
- If the sore throat is due to a viral infection the symptoms are usually milder. Usually they are connected to the common cold.
- If the sore throat is due to the Coxsackie virus, small blisters may develop on the tonsils and in the soft palate. The blisters erupt in a few days and are followed by a scab which may be very painful.
- If the sore throat is due to a streptococcal infection, the tonsils often swell and become coated and the throat is sore. The patient runs a temperature, has foul-smelling breath and may feel quite ill.
How does the doctor make a diagnosis?
The doctor usually makes the diagnosis from the symptoms of the disease, but occasionally a swab of the secretions of the throat and possibly a blood sample are required to identify the cause.
What complications may arise?
Usually a sore throat causes no trouble and only lasts about a week, but the following complications may arise:
- a secondary infection may occur in the middle ear, sinuses or chest.
- if the sore throat is due to a streptococcus infection, there may be a rash (scarlet fever).
- an uncommon complication is a throat abscess that usually occurs only on one side.
- in very rare cases, diseases like rheumatic fever or a particular kidney disease (glomerulonephritis) may occur.
How is a sore throat treated and which medication may help?
In the vast majority of cases, a sore throat caused by a virus infection need only be treated with paracetamol (eg Calpol, Panadol) or ibuprofen, (egNurofen for children) to bring the temperature down.
The symptoms of a sore throat can be relieved by using over-the-counter medicines, such as sprays containing antiseptics and anaesthetics to numb the sore area, or antiseptic gargles. These can be bought without a prescription and your doctor or pharmacist will be able to advise you about them.
Based on a text by Dr Hanne Korsholm, GP