Sore Throat


Medically reviewed by Carina Fung, PharmD, BCPPS

What is pharyngitis?

Pharyngitis is the medical term for a sore throat1. Sore throats are often accompanied by other symptoms, including throat scratchiness, irritation, and pain or difficulty when swallowing.

Sore throats are most commonly caused by viral infections like the common cold or influenza (the flu) and typically go away on their own. Some sore throats, however, are caused by bacteria. Strep throat2, which is caused by group A streptococcal bacteria, requires treatment with antibiotic medication.

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Pharyngitis symptoms

A sore throat generally presents with dull or intense pain in the back of the throat that worsens when swallowing or talking. Sometimes, a sore throat can be accompanied by other symptoms.

Symptoms that most commonly are present with a sore throat include:

  • Pain when swallowing (odynophagia)
  • Difficulty swallowing (dysphagia)
  • Sore or swollen glands/lymph nodes in the neck or jaw
  • Inflamed tonsils
  • White patches or pus on the tonsils (which may indicate the presence of strep throat)
  • Hoarseness or losing your voice
  • Fever
  • Coughing or sneezing
  • Runny nose or congestion

Serious pharyngitis symptoms

Some symptoms accompanying a sore throat can indicate a more serious infection4.

You should seek medical care if you have a sore throat along with any of the following symptoms:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Difficulty opening your mouth
  • Severe difficulty swallowing
  • A sore throat that is unbearable or that lasts longer than a week
  • Hoarseness lasting for more than two weeks
  • Joint pain
  • An earache
  • Rash
  • Dehydration
  • Joint swelling and pain
  • Fever higher than 101°F (38.3°C)
  • Blood in your saliva or phlegm
  • A lump in your neck
  • Swelling in your neck or face

You should seek immediate medical care for your child if he or she experiences any of the following symptoms5:

  • Fever
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Unusual drooling (this may indicate an inability to swallow)
  • Dehydration

As always, it is best to see your healthcare provider if you believe you are sick or if you experience new or worsening symptoms.

Sore throat causes

While pharyngitis is most commonly caused by viral infections, a sore throat can be caused by a number of factors and illnesses3.

Common causes of a sore throat include:

  • Viruses (such as those causing the common cold or the flu)
  • Group A strep bacteria (which causes streptococcal pharyngitis, or strep throat)
  • Irritants (such as smoking or secondhand smoke exposure)
  • Seasonal or pet allergies

How do you get pharyngitis?

Pharyngitis is most frequently caused by cold or flu viruses, but can also be caused by bacterial infections.

The viruses and bacteria that cause pharyngitis are spread through person-to-person transmission. These infectious particles (called pathogens) can travel through bodily fluids, such as saliva or mucus. You can come into contact with pathogens when they are transmitted through the air by an infected person’s cough or sneeze. (as the pathogens can travel through saliva or mucus) or You can also pick up pathogens by touching surfaces that an infected person’s bodily fluids have come into contact with, such as doorknobs, utensils, and tissues.

Crowded places—such as schools, daycare centers, public transportation, and workplaces—can all potentially harbor viruses and bacteria. The more people you’re exposed to, the higher your likelihood of coming into contact with pathogens.

As always, it’s important One of the best ways to prevent yourself from becoming infected with pharyngitis-causing pathogens (and from spreading them to others) is to wash your hands regularly with soap and hot water—especially after touching frequently used surfaces.

Pharyngitis causes

Sore throats can be caused by both viruses and bacteria6.

The most common viral infections that cause a sore throat include:

  • The common cold (most frequently caused by the rhinovirus)
  • Influenza (the flu)
  • Mononucleosis (mono, or “the kissing disease”)
  • Measles
  • Chickenpox
  • Croup (an illness common in children that causes dry, harsh, barking cough)
  • Pertussis (whooping cough)

While a number of bacteria can cause a sore throat, the most common is group A streptococcus, which causes strep throat.

Sore throats can also be the result of factors that are not viral or bacterial. Other causes of sore throats include:

  • Allergies: Postnasal drip resulting from allergies to pollen, dust, dander, or mold can irritate the throat and cause pharyngitis.
  • Dryness: Indoor air that’s lacking moisture can irritate the throat, making it rough and scratchy. A humidifier can help create a moist environment and soothe a sore throat.
  • Irritants: Both outdoor and indoor air pollution (including cigarette smoke) can cause chronic sore throats. Drinking alcohol and eating spicy foods can also irritate the throat.
  • Muscle strain: Yelling or talking loudly for long periods of time can strain the muscles in the throat and cause soreness or hoarseness.
  • Acid reflux (including GERD, or gastroesophageal reflux disease): GERD, a digestive disorder, causes stomach acids to rise back up in the esophagus (food pipe). This acid can irritate the throat.

Who can get a sore throat?

While anyone can get a sore throat, some people are more susceptible to getting sore throats or developing a secondary infection as a result of pharyngitis.

Risk factors for developing pharyngitis7 include:

  • Age: children and teens are most likely to develop sore throats. Children between the ages 3–15 are also more likely to have strep throat.
  • Smoke exposure: Those who smoke or are exposed to secondhand smoke can easily develop sore throats as a result of exposure to the irritant. Tobacco use also increases the risk of cancers of the mouth, throat, and voicebox.
  • Allergies: Seasonal, indoor, or pet allergies contribute to an increased likelihood of developing a sore throat.
  • Exposure to chemical irritants: Particles in the air, including those caused by burning fossil fuels or household chemicals or cleaners, can cause throat irritation.
  • Frequent sinus infections: The drainage from your sinuses (postnasal drip) can irritate your throat.
  • Crowded spaces: Being in close contact with many people puts you at a higher risk of catching pharyngitis-causing viruses or bacteria.
  • A compromised immune system: Those with weakened immune systems (such as those with autoimmune disorders) may have a lessened ability to fight off infections that cause sore throats.

Is pharyngitis contagious?

Yes, sore throats are contagious8 and are spread through person-to-person transmission.

Cold and flu viruses, as well as streptococcal bacteria, are highly contagious. They can travel through the air in droplets left by an infected person or be deposited on surfaces touched by people with the illness.

Viral sore throat

Both the common cold and influenza are contagious illnesses that can cause sore throats.

The common cold is most contagious while symptoms are present. However, you can spread a cold before the onset of symptoms and will remain contagious between 5–7 days after the first symptoms of a cold appear.

The flu is generally most contagious in the first 3–4 days after being infected. It’s possible, however, for you to pass on the illness anywhere from 1 day before symptoms appear to 5–7 days after getting sick.

Strep throat

Strep throat can be contagious even before you start to show symptoms of the illness. Because of this, many people may continue their usual daily activities without knowing they’re infected. This can cause them to spread strep throat to others.

If someone has strep throat and has not received antibiotic treatment, they can remain contagious for up to 3 weeks. When treated with antibiotics, however, people with strep are generally no longer contagious 24 hours after beginning treatment.

Acute pharyngitis

Streptococcal acute pharyngitis9 is caused by a species of bacteria called group A streptococcus (GAS). This infection is common, and is characterized by inflammation of the back of the throat and tonsils.

Because “acute” means the sudden and severe onset of symptoms, acute pharyngitis symptoms are quick to develop. These symptoms include intense sore throat, fever, chills, malaise, headache, tender and enlarged lymph nodes, and pus in the throat or tonsils.

Viral pharyngitis

Viral pharyngitis10 is a sore throat that is caused by a viral infection. The most common causes of viral pharyngitis are influenza and common cold viruses.

Along with the symptoms of your primary infection, a sore throat caused by a virus can present more uncommon symptoms, including cough, conjuntivitis (pink eye), and diarrhea.

Why is my throat sore?

Sometimes, it’s easy to tell why you have a sore throat: you may have been yelling or talking at a loud volume for a long period of time, or a persistent cough has irritated your throat.

Sometimes, however, a sore throat may appear to come from nowhere.

As sore throats can be caused by viral and bacterial infections, it’s a good idea to see your healthcare provider, as he or she can give the proper diagnosis and treatment for your condition.

A sore throat can also be caused by environmental irritants. People who smoke or are exposed to secondhand smoke are at a higher risk of developing a sore throat. Dry, wintry air can dehydrate your throat, leaving it raw and hoarse. Warm liquids and the addition of a humidifier in your home can help hydrate and soothe your sore throat.

Disclaimer: The information on this site is generalized and is not medical advice. It is intended to supplement, not substitute for, the expertise and judgment of your healthcare professional. Always seek the advice of your healthcare professional with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard seeking advice or delay in seeking treatment because of something you have read on our site. RxSaver makes no warranty as to the accuracy, reliability or completeness of this information.

If you are in crisis or you think you may have a medical emergency, call your doctor or 911 immediately.