Chances are, you have had a sore throat from time to time. Whether it’s scratchy, dry or just downright painful, it can be easy to worry that every little throat tickle is something serious or even life threatening, especially with news swirling about COVID-19.
But don’t panic — a sore throat is one of the most common symptoms of many different medical diagnoses. Let’s get to the bottom of what might be causing your sore throat.
Common sore throat causes
When you come into the doctor’s office with a sore throat, one of the things we look into is how long the sore throat has lasted. In general, if something has been around for a long time or is there some days and not others, it is less likely to be serious, though there are exceptions.
Below is a helpful breakdown of the most common causes of sore throat. This is not an exhaustive list, by any means, and should not be used to self-diagnose an illness. If you are at all concerned about your health, talk to your doctor about what could be causing your sore throat.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), sore throat is a known symptom of COVID-19. If your sore throat is accompanied by other coronavirus symptoms, talk to your doctor and complete the virtual COVID-19 screening.
COVID-19 symptoms can include fever or chills, cough, shortness of breath, sore throat, fatigue or weakness, body aches, diarrhea, vomiting, congestion and loss of smell or taste. Keep up to date with the CDC for the latest symptom information and treatment guidelines.
For example, if you have had a mild sore or itchy throat for several weeks, especially in the fall or spring, this is most likely going to be allergy related. Allergies tend to be seasonal and last for several weeks to several months, so a long-lasting mild sore throat should follow the same timeline. They also come and go on different days with increasing and decreasing allergic responses.
A sore throat from allergies tends to be worse when you first wake up in the morning and get better throughout the day after you have had something to drink and the postnasal drip has some time to resolve.
My best tip? You will most likely feel better if you take an antihistamine.
If your sore throat is accompanied by a cough, congestion, headache and body aches, this is more likely to be secondary to a virus, especially if the coughing and congestion are a main complaint. These sore throats often go away in 2-3 days and can be treated with saltwater gargles, sore throat lozenges and warm tea. However, if the cough and fever worsen, talk to your doctor to make sure it’s not a more serious lung condition.
When you have a sore throat without coughing or congestion, a sore throat that has been getting worse over the first few days or one that is accompanied by a headache, stomachache and fever, strep throat always needs to be considered — especially in children.
Although strep throat will go away in 4-5 days on its own, untreated strep throat can sometimes lead to rheumatic fever, which can develop into a serious condition called rheumatic heart disease. It is important to get strep throat treated in order to prevent any secondary problems.
When to go to the doctor for a sore throat
Remember, most sore throats are mild and get better on their own in 3-4 days. If you have had a sore throat that is getting worse or not getting better after 4-5 days, it’s time to see your doctor for further evaluation.
About the author
Bradley R. Berg, MD, PhD, FAAP, FACPE is division director of pediatrics for Baylor Scott and White Health Austin/Round Rock region. He is a graduate of the University of Rochester, School of Medicine and Dentistry, and completed his pediatric residency at Cedar Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. He is also the founder of Humanity for Children, a nonprofit which establishes pediatric clinics and micro-finance projects in East Africa.