We all get a sore throat from time to time. It can be painful, irritating, causing loss of sleep and loss of appetite. The causes of a sore throat are varied, from things like tonsilitis to strep throat, the common cold, flu, or laryngitis. In most cases, sore throats are caused by viruses, or lifestyle choices such as smoking.
Very occasionally, they may be bacterial, as in the case of strep throat. In cases of bacterial infections, antibiotics can be administered. Since the majority of sore throats are viral, however, antibiotics are usually of no assistance in easing the length or severity of the illness.
Viral Versus Bacterial
The two most common bacterial throat infections are tonsillitis – which can also be viral – and strep throat. Your GP will be able to determine whether your sore throat is viral or bacterial by looking for a few simple signs.
- Is your sore throat accompanied by other cold symptoms, such as congestion or a runny nose?
- How long have you had the pain? Has it been just a couple of days, or is it persistent (lasting a week or more)?
- Are the tonsils inflamed, and do they have any white spots or patches?
- Is the sore throat accompanied by a fever, rash, headache or vomiting?
Your GP may suspect bacterial tonsillitis or strep throat if there are white spots or patches on the tonsils, or if there are signs of fever. If a sore throat feels very painful and severe, and your GP has no reason to suspect a bacterial infection, antibiotics should not be prescribed.
Prescribing Antibiotics – Problems of Overuse
Antibiotics are a precious commodity and should not be overused. With overuse comes resistance: bacteria become stronger and able to fight against the effects of antibiotics. Once this becomes the case, our bodies have no way of fighting even the most common infections.
Your GP is likely to avoid prescribing antibiotics unless your sore throat constitutes a bacterial infection. If they are unsure, many GPs are likely to ask you to keep an eye on your symptoms, treating them at home, and to make another appointment if symptoms persist or worsen.
Treating a Sore Throat at Home
There are some simple home remedies you can use to soothe a sore throat, and plenty of over the counter medicines that your pharmacist can recommend. These should be your first port of call in the event of a sore throat:
- Gargle with salt water – this should only be attempted by adults
- Drink plenty of fluids and avoid hot drinks
- Eat cool or soft foods
- Avoid smoking or breathing in smoke
- Get plenty of rest
- Suck ice cubes or ice lollies
- Take paracetamol or ibuprofen for pain and inflammation
- Try lozenges or anaesthetic sprays
When to Seek Medical Advice
You can ask a pharmacist for advice on treating a sore throat at any time. They may also be able to advise on whether seeing your GP could be worthwhile. You can also ask for advice using the NHS Direct phone number, 111. Trained nurses will go through your symptoms with you, provide guidance on treatment, and they can also put you through to your local out of hours service if necessary.
Make an appointment with your GP if:
- Your sore throat persists for over a week
- You have a high temperature, or feel hot and shivery
- You have a weakened immune system
You should dial 999 if:
- You have difficulty swallowing or breathing
- You are drooling
- You make a high-pitched sound as you breathe
- Your symptoms are very severe and are quickly worsening
The need for emergency treatment is very rare and unlikely, however, if you have difficulty breathing treatment should be sought immediately. Further advice on sore throat symptoms and treatment can be found on the NHS Direct website.