What causes a sore throat?

Many things can cause a sore throat. These causes include infections with viruses or bacteria, or sinus drainage and allergies, among others. You should see your doctor right away if you have a sore throat with a high fever, if you have problems breathing or swallowing, or if you feel very faint. If you have a sore throat and a fever, but you just feel mildly ill, you should visit your doctor within the next day or two. If you have a cold with sinus drainage, you may use over-the-counter medicines, like Sudafed or Actifed. Visit your doctor if this cold lasts for more than two weeks, or if it gets worse.

How does the doctor decide if I need antibiotics?

The decision to prescribe antibiotics might be based only on your history and physical exam. Antibiotics usually are prescribed only for patients who might have "strep throat," an infection caused by a bacteria called Streptococcus. A patient with strep throat might have a sore throat with fever that starts suddenly, without a cough or cold symptoms. Strep throat is very common in children from 5 to 12 years of age. The exam might show a red throat, with pus on the tonsils and swollen neck glands. If you have these signs, the doctor may do other tests to see if you need an antibiotic.

Why not just give everyone antibiotics?

Antibiotics have a small risk of causing an allergic reaction every time they are given. Some of these reactions are serious. Antibiotics can also cause other side effects, such as an upset stomach or diarrhea. An even more serious problem is that bacteria can become resistant to antibiotics if these medicines are used frequently in a lot of people. Then antibiotics wouldn't be able to cure people's illnesses. To prevent this from happening, doctors try to prescribe antibiotics only when they will help. Antibiotics only help when sore throat is caused by bacteria. Antibiotics don't help when sore throat is due to viruses, which are the cause of the common cold.

If my doctor doesn't give me antibiotics, what can I do to feel better?

It will take several days for you to feel better, no matter what kind of sore throat you have. You can do several things to help your symptoms. If you have a fever or muscle aches, you can take a pain reliever like acetaminophin (Tylenol), aspirin or ibuprofen (Advil). Your doctor can tell you which pain reliever will work best for you. Cough drops or throat sprays may help your sore throat. Sometimes gargling with warm salt water helps. Soft cold foods, such as ice cream and popsicles, often are easier to eat. Be sure to rest and to drink lots of water or other clear liquids, such as Sprite or 7-Up. Don't drink drinks that have caffeine in them (coffee, tea, colas or other sodas).

Should I be concerned about any other symptoms that occur after I visit my doctor?

Sometimes symptoms change during the course of an illness. Visit your doctor
again if you have any of the following problems:
This information provides a general overview on sore throat and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.

This information was provided by the American Academy of Family Physicians.

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