Content Supplied by NHS Choices


A sore throat (pharyngitis) is normally a symptom of a bacterial or viral infection, such as the common cold. In around a third of cases, no cause for the sore throat can be found.

A sore throat (pharyngitis) is normally a symptom of a bacterial or viral infection, such as the common cold. In around a third of cases, no cause for the sore throat can be found.

If you have a sore throat, you may also have:

If your sore throat is caused by bacteria or a virus, you may also experience symptoms associated with common infectious conditions, such as:

  • a high temperature (fever) of 38C (100.4F) or over
  • aching muscles or tiredness
  • a headache
  • a cough
  • a runny nose

Read more about the causes of a sore throat.

Treating a sore throat

Sore throats are common, especially in children and teenagers. This is because young people have not built up resistance (immunity) against many of the viruses and bacteria that can cause sore throats.

Most sore throats are not serious and usually pass without the need for medical treatment. Over-the-counter painkillers, such as paracetamol or ibuprofen, and self-care tips can usually help to relieve the symptoms of a sore throat without the need to see a GP.

Antibiotics are not usually prescribed for a sore throat, unless it is particularly severe or you are considered at risk of a more serious infection.

Read more detailed information about treating a sore throat.

How long will a sore throat last?

A recent UK study looked at people who book a GP appointment for a sore throat (probably those with worse symptoms). The results found:

  • in 50% of cases, moderately bad symptoms of a sore throat had settled seven days after the onset of the illness
  • in 80% of cases, moderately bad symptoms of a sore throat had gone after 10 days

When to seek medical help

Make an appointment to see your GP if:

  • you have a persistent high temperature above 38C (100.4F), which does not go down after taking medication
  • your symptoms do not improve within a week

It's important to investigate the cause of your temperature because it may be the result of a more serious condition, such as:

  • epiglottitis  swelling and redness (inflammation) of the epiglottis (the flap of tissue at the back of the throat, underneath the tongue); if left untreated, it can cause breathing difficulties
  • quinsy  an abscess (a painful collection of pus) that develops between the back of the tonsil and the wall of the throat, usually caused by a bout of severe tonsillitis

Blood tests may be carried out if your GP suspects you have a type of viral infection called glandular fever (also known as infectious mononucleosis).

Emergency medical care

Contact your GP, local out-of-hours service or NHS 111 as soon as possible if you have a sore throat and you:

  • are in severe pain
  • have difficulty breathing
  • are making a high-pitched sound as you breathe (stridor)
  • start drooling
  • have a muffled voice
  • have difficulty swallowing (dysphagia) or are not able to swallow enough fluids

If your symptoms are very severe or getting worse quickly, visit your nearest accident and emergency (A&E) department or call 999 for an ambulance.

At-risk groups

While most sore throats can be treated at home, some people are more at risk than others of developing complications from a sore throat, and may need additional treatment.

See your GP at the first sign of infection if you:

  • have HIV and AIDS (a virus that attacks the body's immune system)
  • have leukaemia (cancer of the bone marrow)
  • have asplenia (when your spleen, an organ behind your stomach, does not work properly or has been removed)
  • have aplastic anaemia (when your bone marrow does not produce enough blood cells)
  • are receiving chemotherapy
  • are taking an immunosuppressant medicine (which stops your immune system working) – for example, because you have had an organ transplant
  • are taking an antithyroid medication (to stop your thyroid gland producing too many hormones), such as carbimazole
  • are taking a disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drug (DMARD) – for example, to treat arthritis (a common condition that causes inflammation in the joints and bones)

A common condition that causes inflammation (redness and swelling) in the joints and bones.

Bacteria are tiny, single-celled organisms that live in the body. Some can cause illness and disease and some others are good for you.

Immune system
The immune system is the body's defence system, which helps protect it from disease, bacteria and viruses.

Content Supplied by NHS Choices


A sore throat is often just one symptom of a bacterial or viral infection, such as the common cold.

A sore throat is often just one symptom of a bacterial or viral infection, such as the common cold.

The most common types of bacteria and viruses that may cause a sore throat include:

  • the rhinovirus, coronavirus and parainfluenza viruses, which normally cause the common cold  these are responsible for a quarter of all sore throats
  • different types of streptococcal bacteria – group A streptococcal bacteria cause 10% of sore throats in adults and nearly a third of sore throats in children, with groups C and G also thought to be a cause of sore throats

Other bacteria and viruses each tend to be responsible for less than 5% of sore throats. These include:

  • types A and B of the flu virus
  • adenovirus  which can also cause conjunctivitis, an infection in the eye
  • herpes simplex virus type 1  which normally causes cold sores
  • the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV)  which normally causes glandular fever

There are many other, rarer, bacteria and viruses that are each responsible for less than 1% of sore throats.

Catching an infection

The bacterium or virus that causes a sore throat is usually caught from someone else who is already infected. For example, the common cold is spread through tiny droplets of fluid that contain the cold virus, launched into the air when someone coughs, sneezes or speaks.

If you breathe in one of these droplets or touch a surface that has the virus on it, and then touch your face, you may become infected.

Once you have caught an infection, two types of sore throat can develop. These are:

  • pharyngitis  when the area at the back of your throat (the oropharynx) becomes inflamed
  • tonsillitis  when your tonsils (the two lumps of tissue either side of your throat) become inflamed

Read more about treating a sore throat.

Non-infectious causes

Less commonly, sore throats can have non-infectious causes. These include:

  • irritation caused by cigarette smoke or alcohol
  • irritation from a nasogastric tube (passed down your nose and into your stomach to provide liquid food if you can't eat solid food)
  • gastro-oesophageal reflux disease  a condition that causes acid to leak upwards from the stomach into the gullet
  • Stevens-Johnson syndrome  a very severe allergic reaction to medication
  • Kawasaki disease  a rare condition that affects children under five years of age
  • allergies  such as hay fever (an allergic reaction to pollen or spores) which, in rare cases, may also cause a sore throat
  • some blood disorders, such as leukaemia (cancer of the bone marrow) or aplastic anaemia (when the bone marrow does not produce enough blood cells)
  • oral mucositis (inflammation of the layer of tissue that lines your mouth), which can be caused by radiotherapy or chemotherapy (cancer treatments)

Bone marrow
Bone marrow is the soft, spongy tissue in the centre of bones that produces blood cells.

Inflammation is the body's response to infection, irritation or injury, which causes redness, swelling, pain and sometimes a feeling of heat in the affected area.

Two small glands found at the back of your throat, behind the tongue.

Share this page