Diagnosis

Your or your child's doctor will start with a physical exam that will include:

  • Using a lighted instrument to look at the throat, and likely the ears and nasal passages
  • Gently feeling (palpating) the neck to check for swollen glands (lymph nodes)
  • Listening to your or your child's breathing with a stethoscope

Throat swab

With this simple test, the doctor rubs a sterile swab over the back of the throat to get a sample of secretions. The sample will be checked in a lab for streptococcal bacteria, the cause of strep throat. Many clinics are equipped with a lab that can get a test result within a few minutes. However, a second, often more-reliable test is sometimes sent to a lab that returns results within 24 to 48 hours.

If the rapid, in-clinic test comes back positive, then you almost certainly have a bacterial infection. If the test comes back negative, then you likely have a viral infection. Your doctor might wait, however, for the out-of-clinic lab test to determine the cause of the infection.

Treatment

A sore throat caused by a viral infection usually lasts five to seven days and doesn't require medical treatment. However, to ease pain and fever, many people turn to acetaminophen (Tylenol, others) or other mild pain relievers. Use acetaminophen for the shortest time possible and follow label directions to avoid side effects.

Consider giving your child over-the-counter (OTC) pain medications designed for infants or children. These include acetaminophen (Tylenol, Infant's Feverall, others) or ibuprofen (Pediatric Advil, Motrin Infant, others) to ease symptoms.

Use caution when giving aspirin to children or teenagers. Children and teenagers recovering from chickenpox or flu-like symptoms should never take aspirin. This is because aspirin has been linked to Reye's syndrome, a rare but potentially life-threatening condition, in such children.

Treating bacterial infections

If your sore throat is caused by a bacterial infection, your doctor will prescribe antibiotics.

You must take the full course of antibiotics as prescribed even if the symptoms are gone. Failure to take all of the medication as directed can result in the infection worsening or spreading to other parts of the body. Not completing the full course of antibiotics to treat strep throat can increase a child's risk of rheumatic fever or serious kidney inflammation.

Talk to your doctor or pharmacist about what to do if you forget a dose.

Other treatments

If a sore throat is a symptom of a condition other than a viral or bacterial infection, other treatments will likely be considered depending on the diagnosis.

Lifestyle and home remedies

Regardless of the cause of your sore throat, these at-home care strategies can help you ease your symptoms:

  • Rest. And rest your voice.
  • Drink fluids. Fluids keep the throat moist and prevent dehydration. Avoid caffeine and alcohol, which can dehydrate you.
  • Try comforting foods and beverage. Warm liquids — broth, caffeine-free tea or warm water with honey — and cold treats such as ice pops can soothe a sore throat.
  • Gargle with saltwater. A saltwater gargle of 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon of table salt to 4 to 8 ounces of warm water can help soothe a sore throat. Gargle the solution and then spit it out.
  • Humidify the air. Use a cool-air humidifier to eliminate dry air that may further irritate a sore throat or sit for several minutes in a steamy bathroom.
  • Consider lozenges or hard candy. Either can soothe a sore throat, but don't give them to children age 4 and younger because of choking risk.
  • Avoid irritants. Keep your home free from cigarette smoke and cleaning products that can irritate the throat.

Alternative medicine

Although a number of alternative treatments are commonly used to soothe a sore throat, evidence is limited about what works. If you need an antibiotic for a bacterial infection, don't rely on alternative treatments alone.

Check with your doctor before using any herbal remedies, as they can interact with prescription medications and may not be safe for children, pregnant women and people with certain health conditions.

Herbal or alternative products for a sore throat are often packaged as teas, sprays or lozenges. Common alternative remedies include:

  • Slippery elm
  • Licorice root
  • Marshmallow root
  • Honeysuckle flower and other Chinese medicine herbs

Preparing for your appointment

If you or your child has a sore throat, make an appointment with your family doctor or your child's pediatrician. In some cases, you may be referred to a specialist in ear, nose and throat (ENT) disorders or an allergy specialist (allergist).

Here's some information to help you get ready for your appointment.

What you can do

Make a list of:

  • Symptoms you or your child has, and for how long
  • Key personal information, such as recent contact with someone who was ill
  • All medications, vitamins or other supplements you or your child takes, including doses
  • Questions to ask the doctor.

For a sore throat, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:

  • What's likely causing these symptoms?
  • Are there other possible causes?
  • What tests are needed?
  • What treatment do you recommend?
  • How soon do you expect symptoms to improve with treatment?
  • How long will this be contagious? When is it safe to return to school or work?
  • What self-care steps might help?

Don't hesitate to ask other questions.

What to expect from your doctor

Your doctor is likely to ask questions about you or your child. Your doctor might ask:

  • Are there symptoms other than a sore throat?
  • Have these symptoms included a fever? How high?
  • Has there been difficulty breathing?
  • Does anything worsen the sore throat, such as swallowing?
  • Does anything seem to make the symptoms better?
  • Has anyone else at home been ill?
  • Is a sore throat a recurring problem?
  • Do you smoke? Are you or your child regularly exposed to secondhand smoke?