Fitness Facts: I have a sore throat — what now?
By Connie Colbert
Director, Canyon Health and Wellness Clinic
A sore throat is often the first sign of a cold. However, a sore throat from a cold often gets better or goes away after the first day or two. Other cold symptoms, such as runny nose and congestion, may follow the sore throat.
Strep throat, an infection caused by streptococcus bacteria, is another cause of sore throats and tonsillitis. With strep throat, the sore throat is often more severe, may come on suddenly, may be accompanied by fever and a loss of appetite, and may include painful swallowing and white spots on your tonsils. You often will NOT have other symptoms, such as cough, runny nose or congestion.
The symptoms of a cold and strep throat can be very similar. If you think you have symptoms of strep throat, visit your health care provider. Your doctor will ask you about your symptoms and do a physical exam.
To diagnose strep throat, your doctor can check a rapid strep test or send a throat swab to the lab for a culture. In some cases, strep may be diagnosed based on your reported symptoms and other signs, such as white spots in the throat area, fever and swollen lymph nodes in the neck.
Other common causes of a sore throat include:
- Dry air: The air is most likely to be dry in the winter months when the heater is running
- Smoke, chemicals and other irritants in the air
- Gastroesophageal Reflux (GERD): This is a condition in which acid from the stomach backs up into the esophagus (the tube that carries food from the mouth to the stomach). The acid burns the esophagus and throat, causing symptoms such as heartburn and acid reflux.
Sore throats can be painful and annoying. Fortunately, most sore throats are caused by a minor illness and go away without medical treatment. Here are some helpful hints:
- Drink hot tea with lemon and honey. Herbal or decaf teas are best.
- Gargle with warm saltwater. Dissolve 1 teaspoon of regular table salt in 8 ounces (240 ml) of warm water, gargle for a few seconds, spit it out, then repeat a few times. Do this three times a day.
- To relieve pain and reduce inflammation, take ibuprofen (e.g., Motrin, Advil), acetaminophen (e.g., Tylenol) or generic versions of these medicines, following package directions.
- Keep your throat moist by using a vaporizer or sucking on throat lozenges, ice or popsicles. Some lozenges also help relieve pain.
- Turn on a cool mist humidifier to add moisture to the air.
- Refrain from smoking. Smoking makes it hard to eliminate mucous and may predispose you to bronchitis or pneumonia. This would be a good time to consider quitting.
When should I seek help?
- Difficulty swallowing liquids that prevents you from drinking
- White or yellow spots in throat
- Pain that is persistent, severe or increasing
- Difficulty breathing
- A new rash or fever higher than 101 F
- Difficulty opening your mouth
- Painful or stiff neck
- Sore joints
- Signs of dehydration, which may include:
- Increased thirst
- Dry mouth and eyes
- Little or no urine for 8 or more hours.
- Feeling dizzy when you stand or sit up.
- Watch closely for early symptoms anytime there is an illness that causes a high fever, vomiting or diarrhea. These additional symptoms can increase your risk of severe dehydration
The bottom line:
Viral and bacterial infections, as well as irritants and injuries, cause the majority of sore throats. Most sore throats get better in a few days without treatment. Rest, warm liquids, saltwater gargles and over-the-counter pain relievers can help soothe the pain of a sore throat at home.
Strep throat and other bacterial infections are treated with antibiotics. Your health care provider can use a swab test to find out if you have strep.
See a health care provider if you have persistent, severe symptoms or are unsure. Never self-treat if warning signs are present.