Your or your child's doctor may review the symptoms and medical history. He or she may conduct a physical exam that includes:
- Using a lighted instrument to look at the throat, and likely the ears and nasal passages
- Gently feeling the neck to check for swollen glands (lymph nodes)
- Listening to your or your child's breathing with a stethoscope
In many cases, doctors use a simple test to detect streptococcal bacteria, the cause of strep throat. The doctor rubs a sterile swab over the back of the throat to get a sample of secretions and sends the sample to a lab for testing. Many clinics are equipped with a lab that can get a test result for a rapid antigen test within a few minutes. However, a second, often more reliable test, called a throat culture, is sometimes sent to a lab that returns results within 24 to 48 hours.
Rapid antigen tests aren't as sensitive, although they can detect strep bacteria quickly. Because of this, the doctor may send a throat culture to a lab to test for strep throat if the antigen test comes back negative.
In some cases, doctors may use a molecular test to detect streptococcal bacteria. In this test, a doctor swipes a sterile swab over the back of the throat to get a sample of secretions. The sample is tested in a lab. Your or your child's doctor may have accurate results within a few minutes.
A sore throat caused by a viral infection usually lasts five to seven days and doesn't usually require medical treatment. Antibiotics don't help treat a viral infection.
To ease pain and fever, many people turn to acetaminophen (Tylenol, others) or other mild pain relievers.
Consider giving your child over-the-counter pain medications designed for infants or children, such as acetaminophen (Children's Tylenol, FeverAll, others) or ibuprofen (Children's Advil, Children's Motrin, others), to ease symptoms.
Never give aspirin to children or teenagers because it has been linked to Reye's syndrome, a rare but potentially life-threatening condition that causes swelling in the liver and brain.
Treating bacterial infections
If your or your child's sore throat is caused by a bacterial infection, your doctor or pediatrician will prescribe antibiotics.
You or your child 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.
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 or your child's symptoms:
- Rest. Get plenty of sleep. Rest your voice, too.
- 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. Don't give honey to children younger than age 1.
- Gargle with saltwater. A saltwater gargle of 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon (1250 to 2500 milligrams) of table salt to 4 to 8 ounces (120 to 240 milliliters) of warm water can help soothe a sore throat. Children older than 6 and adults can 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, being sure to clean the humidifier regularly so it doesn't grow mold or bacteria. 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.
- Stay at home until you're no longer sick. This can help protect others from catching a cold or other virus.
Although several alternative treatments are commonly used to soothe a sore throat, evidence is limited about what works. If you or your child needs 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 and breastfeeding 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
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?