When you have a sore throat, you may experience mild discomfort or a burning sensation when you swallow or talk, and the back of your throat may feel irritated or scratchy. Sore throats can be caused by anything from allergies and the common cold to bacterial infections like strep throat and other conditions. In many cases, simple home remedies can help ease your pain.
What causes a sore throat?
While bacterial infections and viruses such as the cold, flu, or COVID-19 often cause sore throats, other common causes of a sore throat include:
- Smoking and vaping
- Exposure to secondhand smoke
- Sleeping with your mouth open
- Acid reflux
- Eating spicy or acidic food
- Exposure to chemicals in cleaning products
Strep throat, mononucleosis (or mono), and tonsillitis are more serious causes of a sore throat and require immediate medical care.
What to know about strep throat
Strep throat is the result of a bacterial infection. While serious complications are not common, the bacteria can spread to other parts of the body if the condition is left untreated.
Symptoms of strep throat include:
- A sore throat that starts very quickly
- Pain when swallowing
- Red, swollen tonsils
- White patches or streaks on the tonsils
- Tiny red spots on the roof of the mouth
- Swollen lymph nodes in the neck
If you experience any of these symptoms, see your doctor as soon as possible. Your doctor may order a rapid antigen test that can detect strep throat within a few minutes. In addition, you may be given a throat culture, which involves rubbing a sterile swab over the back of your throat to get a sample of secretions and sending the sample to a lab for testing.
Your doctor may prescribe antibiotics for strep throat or other bacterial infections. Be sure to take the full course of antibiotics as prescribed, even if your symptoms go away. Failing to do so could result in the infection worsening or spreading to other parts of your body.
If a sore throat is the result of a virus—such as the cold, flu, or COVID-19—antibiotics won’t help. Antibiotics don’t work on viruses.
Home remedies to treat a sore throat
Living with a sore throat can make it difficult to swallow, sleep, talk, eat, and drink. While most sore throats go away in about a week, there are steps you can take at home to ease your discomfort.
- Drink fluids to prevent dehydration. Warm broth and caffeine-free tea can soothe a sore throat. Cold liquids, especially water, and ice pops also help. Avoid caffeine and alcohol, which dehydrate you.
- Take one tablespoon of honey twice a day. Honey has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties that can relieve a sore throat. The sweetness soothes your throat’s nerve endings and reduces coughing. It also has antibacterial properties. However, never give honey to infants under one year old.
- Soothe a sore throat with a lozenge. Over-the-counter lozenges release ingredients that soothe the throat as they dissolve in the mouth. Medicated lozenges that contain AMC/DCBA are more effective at relieving pain than non-medicated lozenges.
- Gargle with warm salt water. Dissolve a 1/2 teaspoon of table salt in a glass of four to eight ounces of warm water. Gargle the solution a mouthful at a time and then spit it out. Do not swallow the saltwater. Gargling with saltwater once every three hours can help reduce swelling and irritation in the back of your throat.
- Take an over-the-counter pain reliever. Acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen (Advil or Motrin), and naproxen (Aleve) can help relieve throat pain and pain that’s located in your glands and neck. Numbing throat sprays may also help.
- Use a humidifier. Adding moisture to your bedroom when you’re sleeping can help relieve a dry throat. Consider purchasing a humidifier if the air in your home is too dry. Simply taking a hot shower and breathing in the steam can also soothe a sore throat.
- Avoid irritants. Cigarette smoke, dry air, acidic or spicy foods, and cleaning products can make a sore throat worse.
- Get plenty of sleep. Lack of sleep makes the body more vulnerable to infections and illnesses. A good night’s sleep helps your immune system fight illnesses and increases the production of antibodies. Most adults need seven to nine hours of sleep per night. Practice good sleep habits to avoid insomnia and get the sleep you need.
Natural remedies for a sore throat
Herbal remedies for a sore throat include slippery elm, marshmallow root, and licorice root. Check with your doctor before using any herbal remedy as it may interact with prescription medications or other supplements and may not be safe for people with certain health conditions.
Slippery elm. Many people use teas and supplements that contain slippery elm bark to treat a sore throat. Its thick consistency coats and soothes the throat.
Marshmallow root. Teas and lozenges that contain marshmallow root coat and protect the throat.
Licorice root. As a common ingredient in teas, lozenges, and supplements, licorice root may relieve the symptoms of strep throat.
Prevent a sore throat
The best way to prevent a sore throat is to avoid getting sick. Wash your hands regularly with soap and warm water. Avoid touching your eyes or mouth. Cover your mouth when coughing or sneezing. And stay home if you don’t feel well.
If you come down with a sore throat, rest assured that most sore throats go away in about a week to 10 days. In the meantime, home remedies may provide some relief.
If you have a sore throat while experiencing other symptoms—such as difficulty breathing, chest pain, swollen lymph nodes, or swelling in the joints—seek medical care immediately.
Mayo Clinic, Sore Throat
Cleveland Clinic, 6 Sore Throat Remedies That Actually Work