A sore throat is most often caused by an infection, which in most cases is due to a virus but occasionally due to bacteria. The infection leads to considerable inflammation in the throat, causing pain which may be troublesome. The pain is often worse when you want to swallow your saliva, drink or eat.
These infections may be accompanied by a cold, fever and fatigue.
The pain tends to improve over time, more or less quickly depending on the initial intensity of the inflammation of the mucous membranes in the throat.
The most frequent infections are pharyngitis and tonsillitis. With pharyngitis, the whole back of the throat is irritated, while tonsillitis only affects the tonsils (the tonsils are located on each side of the throat).
A sore throat is not always caused by an infection. It may be due to excessively using the voice, very dry air, allergies (pollen or animal fur) or acid reflux from the stomach.
If your sore throat is severe or appears suddenly, it may be due to an infection. In 90% of cases, it is a virus. There are hundreds of different viruses. A less common viral cause is acute mononucleosis (an infection characterised by a sore throat but also by potentially severe fatigue, fever and swollen ganglions).
A throat infection is rarely caused by bacteria, such as “Streptococcus”. Your doctor may suggest taking a sample from the back of the throat, especially if the sore throat lasts for a long time, to find out if the infection is caused by a virus or bacteria.
Even if it is painful, it is important to drink enough, and to drink regularly. Hot drinks to which you can add honey often have a soothing effect. You should also avoid anything that would make the sore throat worse. As a result, you should eat food that is easy to swallow such as soup and mashed bananas.
While waiting for your body to eliminate the infection and soothe the inflammation in your throat, you can take medicine to relieve the pain. It is important to take this medicine regularly and not wait, after taking a tablet, until the pain comes back severely to take another tablet. The doctor will give you precise information on how to take your medicine.
Two types of medicine can be used to relieve the pain: paracetamol (Dafalgan, Panadol, etc.) or anti-inflammatories, such as ibuprofen (Irfen, Algifor, etc.). Warning: pregnant women should not take anti-inflammatories. Pain relief is usually limited to paracetamol.
If you are diagnosed with a bacterial infection, the doctor will prescribe you with antibiotics (antibiotics reduce the period of contagiousness and the risk of complications).
Even though the most important medicines are pain killers and, when necessary, antibiotics, the doctor will sometimes also prescribe tablets to suck on or a spray for the throat. It is also possible to suck on herbal sweets.
Immediate medical attention is not always needed for a sore throat. A consultation will however be necessary if the sore throat lasts for a long time or if there is a more severe symptom, for example if there is a severe deterioration of your general health. Difficulty breathing or drinking requires an urgent medical evaluation.
For further information
You can find further information on sore throats by watching this video on the RTS découverte website.
If you want to know the difference between viruses and bacteria, watch this video (2 minutes).