Jane Emanuel, M.D.
Boys Town Ear, Nose & Throat Institute
Most sore throats are caused by viruses, so everyone is pretty familiar with a doctor telling you that.
Some sore throats are caused by bacteria and some people are familiar with strep throat that you get the test for. That's the most important bacterial one to get diagnosed because it has some complications.
Allergies can also cause sore throats. Reflux, which is acid coming back up your throat can cause sore throats. Then there are a variety of things that you have to worry about. If you're a smoker, a tumor or growth can cause a sore throat, that's pretty rare of course and not something we see in kids.
When should you see a doctor?
Fair amount of the time, it's ok if you don't go to the doctor for a sore throat. If it's a mild sore throat, lasts a day or two, it's probably not worth going to the doctor.
Mostly you look at severity and duration. If you have a sore throat so bad that you can't swallow, so bad that you can't open your mouth, or if you have a fever associated with it, temp of 100 or 101 for a day or two is probably ok, 102 or 103 or a fever not going away in a day or two, those are all things you want to go see the doctor for.
A sore throat, if its in the five to seven day range and it's not getting any better, it's a good time to see the doctor. If you have a sore throat that's not acute and ,kind of, more chronic and has been going on for a couple of weeks, you should definitely see the doctor in that time frame.
How are sore throats treated?
When you go in to the doctor and it's more of an acute sore throat, you're probably going to end up with a strep test. If you get a bacterial result from the test and you have strep then you'll get some antibiotics otherwise you're going to get told, it's a virus, take some Tylenol or Motrin, gargle with some warm salt water and wait until it goes away.
If it's more complicated, if it's something due to allergies or reflux, as determined by your physician, then you're possibly going to get some treatment for your allergies, possibly some dietary changes to try to treat your reflux.
Are over-the-counter medications a good idea?
Over-the-counter things for sore throats should only be used on a temporary basis. The throat sprays and the sore throat cough meds type of things, if you read the labels it's going to say to only use them for two or three days, but actually Tylenol or Motrin, and gargling with warm salt water is better than any of the over-the-counter stuff.
Sore throats are most often caused by either a virus or bacteria. Dr. Jane Emanuel, Board Certified Otolaryngologist at the Boys Town Ear, Nose & Throat Institute, explains additional causes of sore throats, when you should see a doctor and the treatment options.