Is Your Throat Just Sore? Or Is It Something More?

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Sore throats are irritated, swollen or scratchy. They hurt! Especially when you swallow. Sometimes they signal a serious problem. Other times they’re not so serious. Here’s some advice on recognizing the difference, and knowing when to call the doctor. 

Recognizing a Not-So-Serious Sore Throat 

When your sore throat is caused by one of these reasons, it should go away on its own. In the meantime, try a little patience combined with tender loving care: 

  • Excessive shouting 
  • Air pollution 
  • Low humidity 
  • Drainage from your nose and sinuses 
  • Common cold or flu virus 

While you patiently wait for the soreness to run its course (it can take up to 10 days), soothe your throat with these remedies:  

  • Gargle with salt water every hour by dissolving one teaspoon of salt into one cup of warm water. 
  • Drink hot tea or soup. The heat is soothing and will help drain the mucus in your sinuses. 
  • Drink lots of water to keep your throat lubricated and prevent dryness.  
  • Stop smoking and avoid secondhand smoke or air that is polluted. 
  • Take over-the-counter medications. Don’t let children take medications that are meant for older age groups.  
  • Suck on throat lozenges (older children and adults), or try over-the-counter throat sprays or ice pops (children). 
  • Add moisture to the air in your home with a portable humidifier. This can prevent your throat from becoming dry, especially when it’s cold outside and your home is artificially heated. 
  • Avoid alcohol, spicy foods and high-acid beverages like orange juice that can irritate the throat. 
Gargle with salt water every hour by dissolving one teaspoon of salt into one cup of warm water.

When to Call Your Doctor

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Knowing when to call the doctor for a sore throat is tricky. You should do so if any of the following apply: 

  • The soreness is so severe it prevents you from swallowing liquids. 
  • You have a fever that exceeds 101 degrees and lasts more than a day. 
  • Sleeping is difficult because your throat is blocked by swollen tonsils or adenoids. 
  • A red rash or white patches appear on your throat. 
  • Hives or a rash appear on your skin, or wheezing develops. These could signal an allergic reaction. 

At your appointment, your doctor likely will do a physical exam. Her next step will be based on what she finds.

A quick swab of your throat will determine if streptococcus is present (the bacteria that causes strep throat). Strep is the cause of 5 to 15 percent of sore throats in adults. If the test is positive, your doctor likely will prescribe antibiotics. Take all the medicine you are prescribed. Strep that is not properly treated can lead to kidney inflammation or rheumatic fever. 

If your tonsils are infected, causing white patches of pus to form in your throat, you’ll likely be prescribed antibiotics. This should result in significant improvement in two to three days (but be sure to take all of the medication you receive, even if the soreness is gone).

If your doctor thinks you may have mononucleosis (a viral infection) she’ll likely run a blood test to be certain. A sore throat that lasts for one to four weeks is one of the symptoms. Because mono is caused by a virus, antibiotics are not an effective treatment. Typically you’ll be told to get plenty of rest and to avoid exercise.

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