When to See a Doctor for a Sore Throat
It might start with a scratchy tickle at the back of your throat—or it might hit all at once. A sore throat is one of the most common symptoms people experience. This is because so many different things can cause it, from mild irritations to serious illnesses. So, how do you know when to try sore throat remedies at home and when to call a doctor? It depends on three things: how much it hurts, how long it lasts, and what other symptoms you have with it.
When many people think of sore throats, their first concern may be strep throat. Strep throat is a throat infection caused by the Streptococcus bacteria. While there are multiple kinds of Streptococcus (or simply, strep), it’s the group A variety that is the greatest concern. Left untreated, group A strep can spread to other parts of the body. Complications can include abscesses around the tonsils, swollen lymph nodes, sinus infections, ear infections, and even rheumatic fever, which may permanently damage the heart. Fortunately, antibiotics are generally very effective at treating strep throat when taken correctly.
However, strep throat is only one possible cause of a sore throat. On average, 70 to 80% of sore throats in children are not caused by strep. In adults, that number is 85 to 95%. If your sore throat is not caused by strep, antibiotics will not help—and may even do more harm than good. This is why it’s so important to have a lab test verify strep throat before starting treatment. Other common causes of a sore throat include:
- Dry air
- Irritants in the air, such as aerosol chemicals, excessive dust, or pollution
- Postnasal drip (mucus dripping down the back of the throat from the sinuses)
- Smoking or secondhand smoke
- Viruses like the cold or flu virus
In rare cases, a sore throat may be due to throat cancer. Approximately 1% of adults will be diagnosed with mouth and/or throat cancer during their lifetime, according to the National Cancer Institute.
Most cases of sore throat go away on their own within a few days. In the meantime, there are many home remedies for sore throat that may give you some relief. For mild cases, try:
- Drinking lots of fluids, especially warm beverages like tea
- Eating ice chips or popsicles
- Gargling with salt water
- Using a humidifier
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications, such as ibuprofen
If you feel your sore throat is likely caused by environmental irritants, try these tips as well:
- Avoid smoking, especially indoors.
- Vacuum often using a vacuum with a HEPA filter.
- Consider using a non-ozone-producing air purifier.
- Check for mold or pests, such as mice or cockroaches, and take steps to remove them if they’re present.
If your sore throat doesn’t respond to home treatments or lasts longer than seven days, it’s time to get a doctor’s help.
While a sore throat isn’t necessarily an emergency, it’s important to pay attention to other symptoms that may occur along with it. Keep an eye out for strep throat symptoms or symptoms of other infections, such as scarlet fever or pneumonia. See a doctor right away if a sore throat lasts more than a week or if it comes with:
- Fever higher than 100.4˚F
- Severe pain when swallowing or difficulty swallowing
- Pus or white patches on the tonsils or back of the throat
- Tiny red spots on the roof of the mouth
- Excessive drooling in infants or young children
- Nausea or vomiting
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Severe headache, muscle aches, or joint pain
- Blood in saliva or phlegm
- Persistent cough, hoarseness, or change in voice
If you have trouble breathing, call 911 immediately.
In most cases, a primary care doctor or a doctor at an urgent or walk-in care facility can effectively diagnose and treat a sore throat. The doctor will ask questions about your symptoms and treatments you’ve tried, then look at your throat with a lighted instrument. A nurse may take a throat swab to check for strep. If your doctor suspects allergies, she may refer you to an allergist. Ear, nose and throat doctors (an otolaryngologist) also treat allergies and throat conditions.
Remember that a sore throat is a very common symptom with a wide range of possible causes. When you have a sore throat, listen to what the rest of your body is telling you as well. When in doubt, see a doctor for a thorough checkup and timely treatment.