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Pharyngitis (sore throat)

Key points

  • Pharyngitis is usually caused by an infection with a virus but can sometimes be caused by group A Streptococcus bacteria.
  • The most common symptom of pharyngitis is a sore throat.
  • Pharyngitis usually gets better without treatment within three to seven days.

Featured FAQ

Why aren’t antibiotics usually prescribed to treat pharyngitis?

Antibiotics aren't usually helpful in relieving the symptoms of pharyngitis, or in reducing the duration of your illness.

See all our FAQs on Pharyngitis

Pharyngitis is inflammation of your throat (pharynx). The most common symptom is a sore throat. It’s most often caused by an infection with a virus and less commonly by group A Streptococcus bacteria.

About pharyngitis

Pharyngitis is the medical term used to describe an infection or inflammation of your throat.

Your throat starts at the back of your mouth and nose and connects to your oesophagus (the pipe that goes from your mouth to your stomach), windpipe (trachea) and voice box (larynx).

Illustration showing location of the pharynx and surrounding structures

Pharyngitis can be an acute or chronic inflammation of your throat. When describing an illness, the terms ‘acute’ and ‘chronic’ refer to how long a person has had it, not to how serious the condition is.

  • Acute pharyngitis is typically over within three to seven days. It’s a common condition, particularly in children aged five to 15 years old during winter and early spring.
  • Chronic pharyngitis (or a persistent sore throat) lasts for longer, sometimes for several weeks.

Symptoms of pharyngitis

The symptoms of pharyngitis vary depending on how inflamed your throat is. The most common symptom is a sore throat, which may be mild or severe. Other symptoms that you may also have at the same time include:

  • difficulty and pain when swallowing
  • a fever (a temperature higher than 37.5°C)
  • a runny or blocked nose
  • a cough
  • a headache
  • enlarged and tender glands in your neck
  • pain or discomfort in your abdomen (tummy)
  • feeling sick or vomiting
  • enlarged and painful tonsils (tonsillitis)

You probably won’t need to see your GP if you have these symptoms as you can usually manage them at home. Speak to your pharmacist for advice about what medicines to take. However, if your symptoms get worse, for example you have difficulty swallowing fluids, are vomiting or painkillers aren't helping, contact your GP for advice. You should always see your GP if you have a persistent sore throat that lasts for several weeks.

Complications of pharyngitis

Most people with pharyngitis won’t have any complications. However, on rare occasions, pharyngitis caused by a bacterial infection can lead to:

  • tonsillitis – see our frequently asked questions for more information
  • an ear infection (otitis media)
  • a sinus infection (sinusitis)
  • a throat abscess (retropharyngeal abscess) – this is most common in young children
  • an abscess behind your tonsils (peritonsillar abscess or quinsy)

If you have an abscess, you may have severe pain, drool and find it very hard to swallow – see your GP if you have these symptoms. An abscess can also affect your breathing. It’s important that you seek immediate medical attention if you’re finding it hard to breathe.

You’re more likely to develop complications if you have a weakened immune system, for example if you have HIV/AIDS, or are taking medicines that suppress your immune system.

Causes of pharyngitis

Pharyngitis is usually caused by an infection with a virus and, less commonly, by bacteria. Most people with acute pharyngitis have a viral infection such as the common cold virus. The most common type of bacterial infection is group A Streptococcus (known as strep throat). Strep throat occurs most often in children. There is no evidence that sore throats caused by a bacterial infection are more severe than those caused by a virus, or that they last any longer.

Other, rarer causes of an acute sore throat may include:

  • a thrush infection of your throat
  • a sexually transmitted infection passed on through oral sex
  • a blood disorder, such as leukaemia or anaemia
  • certain medicines such as carbimazole, clozapine and sulfasalazine

Irritants and allergens can also inflame the linings of your throat and cause chronic pharyngitis. For example, you may be more likely to have a persistent sore throat if you smoke, drink alcohol to excess or have a medical condition affecting your mouth, nose or upper respiratory system (such as hay fever, sinusitis or a chronic cough).

Diagnosis of pharyngitis

You probably won’t need to see your GP if you or your child has a sore throat. However, if you’re worried that your symptoms are more severe or not getting better, contact your GP – he or she may be able to advise you over the phone.

Your GP will usually be able to diagnose pharyngitis by asking about your symptoms and possibly also examining you. He or she may look inside your throat to check for signs of infection and feel your neck to check for any swelling. You won't usually need any other tests but if your GP suspects you have a bacterial infection and you’re at risk of complications, he or she may take a swab sample from the back of your throat to help confirm this. However, this isn't usually necessary.

Your GP may also ask you to have a blood test to check for glandular fever if you have a sore throat that lasts for longer than a week.

If you have had a sore throat for longer than three weeks with no obvious cause, your GP may refer you to a doctor who specialises in ear, nose and throat conditions.

Treatment of pharyngitis

For most people, a sore throat will get better on its own within a week of the symptoms starting without any specific treatment. However, there are things you can do to help ease your symptoms and make you feel more comfortable.

Self-help

Although there is little scientific evidence to support it, you may find gargling a few times a day for three to four minutes with salt water or soluble aspirin dissolved in water helps your sore throat. Never give aspirin to children under the age of 16. Drinking warm liquids (particularly with lemon and honey) and sucking on throat lozenges may also help to soothe your throat.

Medicines

Over-the-counter painkillers

You can take over-the-counter painkillers such as ibuprofen or paracetamol to relieve pain and reduce your temperature. Don’t give aspirin to children under 16. Always read the patient information leaflet that comes with your medicine and if you have any questions, ask your pharmacist for advice. If your symptoms don’t improve or get worse, contact your GP.

Antibiotics

Your GP is unlikely to prescribe antibiotics, even if your sore throat is thought to be caused by a bacterial infection, as they won't usually relieve your symptoms or help you to recover any sooner. You may be prescribed antibiotics if you have a severe infection or if your GP thinks you're at risk of complications. You may also be given antibiotics if you're admitted to hospital because of a complication, such as an abscess.

If you're prescribed antibiotics, make sure that you take the full course. Your GP will usually give you penicillin to take by mouth for 10 days. If you’re allergic to penicillin, your GP will prescribe an alternative antibiotic. Always ask your GP for advice and read the patient information leaflet that comes with your medicine.

 

Produced by Pippa Coulter, Bupa Health Information Team, May 2013.

For answers to frequently asked questions on this topic, see FAQs.

For sources and links to further information, see Resources.

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  • This information was published by Bupa's Health Information Team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been reviewed by appropriate medical or clinical professionals. Photos are only for illustrative purposes and do not reflect every presentation of a condition. The content is intended only for general information and does not replace the need for personal advice from a qualified health professional. For more details on how we produce our content and its sources, visit the about our health information page.

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