You’re probably reminded of your childhood when you’re dealing with a sore throat. In those days, your sore throat remedies were simple: staying home from school (watching game shows) and eating chicken noodle soup. Or maybe you nursed your sore throat with cough drops and your favorite Netflix show.
Whatever the case, your sore throat was a kind of typical childhood condition. And that’s how you still view this symptom: common. When you get a sore throat, you wait a few days and expect to be back to normal.
But what if your sore throat is, well, not just a sore throat? A sore throat can, in some cases, be an indication of something more serious going on. But how can you tell?
Common sore throat causes
Unfortunately, a sore throat is not a particularly unusual symptom of illness. This is, in part, because the body utilizes mucus to fight infections and that can lead to lots of irritation. As a result, many of the following viral sore throat causes are relatively common:
- COVID-19: The novel coronavirus has been known to cause sore throats in some individuals who develop symptoms. The Delta and Omicron variants have this symptom more frequently and severely.
- Mononucleosis (often simply called “mono”): Mono is spread through saliva (which is why it’s called “the kissing disease”) and results in extreme fatigue.
- The Common Cold: You probably realize that a stuffy or runny nose usually comes with the common cold. Irritation and soreness will result when post nasal drip trickles down into the throat.
- Influenza: A wide range of symptoms, including a sore throat, come along with the flu. High fever and aching joints are some other symptoms.
- Chicken Pox: While most commonly associated with the mosquito-bite-like bumps that develop (and itch), chicken pox can also cause numerous other symptoms, and that includes a sore throat.
- Croup: This is a common infection that affects the upper respiratory tract which is particularly prevalent in children. Individuals with Croup frequently develop a barking like cough along side of a sore throat.
Antibiotics will have no impact on viral illnesses. Typically, rest and time are what your doctor will suggest. For symptom alleviation, you can rely on sore throat remedies like cough drops and fluids.
This will vary by the virus. In some instances, steroids or antivirals can help. Seek treatment if any of these viral symptoms linger.
Common, non-viral causes of sore throats
In some cases, it’s not a virus but a bacteria that triggers your sore throat symptoms. Strep Throat is a very common bacterial example. Your sore throat will go away in a matter of days with antibiotics for strep throat.
There are even a few common causes that don’t have anything to do with bacteria or viruses. Here are a few:
- Irritation from weather (for example, high heat or frigid cold), particularly in very low humidity.
- Chemical or pollutant irritation
- Acid reflux or heartburn.
- Allergic reactions.
Can a sore throat mean something more serious is going on?
In most instances, sore throat causes will be something common, such as a cold or flu. But a sore throat can also be a sign of some less common, but often very serious illnesses. Here are a few of those conditions:
- Tumors: In some cases, it’s the tumor itself that can trigger your sore throat. Swelling can put pressure on areas of your throat as the tumor gets bigger. If the tumor is found in the throat, larynx, or tongue this is especially true.
- Thyroid issues: Certain hormones are dispensed through your body by your thyroid. Your thyroid is located in your neck, so when it quits working properly or becomes inflamed for any reason, this can bring about sore throat symptoms.
- Epiglottitis: Immediate treatment is needed for this potential fatal swelling of the epiglottis. It can sometimes be the result of trauma but more commonly is caused by an infection of the Hib (haemophilus influenza type B).
- Chronic tonsillitis: Sometimes, your tonsils become a site of recurring infections. When these infections happen too frequently, the tonsils must be removed. Both tonsillitis and the surgery to take out your tonsils can trigger a severe sore throat.
- Cancer: One of several forms of cancer can, in some cases, cause a sore throat. A combination of surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation will generally be used to treat these cancers.
- HIV infections: Your immune system relies heavily on your lymph nodes. Sore throat symptoms can occur when HIV causes the lymph nodes to fill up with fluid.
How will I know if my sore throat is common… or serious?
So, you have a sore throat and none of your normal sore throat solutions seem to work. Naturally, you want to know if you should be worried. The good news is that in the vast majority of situations, a sore throat will go away in only a few days.
But you might have a more serious condition if you detect any of the following:
- Difficulty breathing: If your sore throat is interfering with your ability to breathe, you should get in touch with a medical professional immediately.
- Your sore throat isn’t clearing up: If your sore throat lingers for more than 3-5 days, that might be an indication that something more severe is happening (even if that something more serious is a particularly severe case of strep throat). Make sure you set up an appointment with us as soon as possible if your sore throat isn’t improving.
- You have a high fever: If you have a fever, and you can’t keep your temp down with over-the-counter medications such as Tylenol, contact us right away.
- Take an at-home Covid test: It won’t hurt to rule out COVID-19 as a possible source of your sore throat. In this way, others can be protected from catching Covid from you.
These aren’t the only indications that you could be experiencing something more significant. If you notice any lumps or sores, for instance, contact us.
So the general rule of thumb is this: a sore throat is quite normal and will usually go away on its own. But you need to come in and see us if your symptoms don’t clear up for two weeks or more. Just make sure to get some rest and binge your favorite Netflix program in the meantime.