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Sort Through Your Sore Throat Symptoms to Find the Right Remedy

Incredibly common and frustratingly uncomfortable, sore throats are rarely something you can't handle at home.

 Mother giving tea to sick child

It’s one of the most common complaints from childhood through adulthood. It may be itchy, scratchy, inflamed, swollen or painful. Yet we default to describing it with just one vague word: sore.

However your sore throat feels, you want it to feel better fast. Before you reach into the medicine cabinet or concoct a home remedy, you should know what’s causing your sore throat.

A sore throat is a symptom, not a sickness.

“Sore throat is a symptom in and of itself. Of course, there are different variations, whether it be scratchy or sharp or just kind of achy,” says Tanner Canova, PA-C a physician assistant who specializes in the ear, nose and throat. “But a sore throat is a sign of something else altogether, whether it be a virus or bacterial illness.”

Most times, a sore throat is associated with the common cold. A sore throat may be the most obvious and irritating sign of illness or the only symptom altogether. But it could also be a number of other common things like allergies, sinus infection, acid reflux, postnasal drip — even just dry air.

When your throat is bothering you, the first thing you do is shine a bright light back there to see what’s going on. And you might spot redness, irritation or inflammation. Your throat may look raw or swollen. It could also look completely normal.

“It’s more difficult than just looking at home. It’s hard to tell if it’s just a quick cold, a viral or bacterial infection or something in the air,” Canova says.

But if your best guess is that it’s a cold or another mild ailment, the best you can do is manage your sore throat until it resolves on its own.

Home remedies help soothe a sore throat.

“Regardless if it’s acute or chronic, home remedies can be helpful,” Canova says. “With sore throats, there’s a lot that can be done simply through at-home control and over-the-counter medicines.”

He recommends trying basic treatments at home to find what works for you:

  • Honey – Thick and sticky, honey relieves irritation by creating a coat that temporarily traps in moisture. It also has anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties that may help combat the cause of your sore throat.
  • Warm liquids – A cup of herbal tea or a bowl of broth lubricate your throat and help clear out the mucous membranes, which could be contributing to the soreness. A combo of honey and tea team up to warm and coat the back of your throat.
  • Cold drinks – Alternatively, some people find comfort with ice water, popsicles or other cold beverages that numb the throat.
  • Chloraseptic sprays – Over-the-counter throat sprays also have numbing agents and provide temporary pain relief through an oral anesthetic.
  • Lozenges – There are a variety of lozenges that offer all of the above. They may contain honey to coat, peppermint to cool and numb or chloraseptic ingredients to provide relief while also promoting saliva production for lubrication.
  • Saltwater rinses – Gargling with salt water every few hours reduces swelling and irritation, breaks up mucus and helps bring bacteria to the surface to be rinsed out of your mouth.

“Those are all the main things I would do at home,” Canova says. “Overall, they are very reasonable to do for acute sore throats and, even to some extent, with managing a chronic sore throat.”

Chronic sore throat and other concerning signs require more care.

Sore throats are incredibly common and most often a minor inconvenience. Yet there are times when a sore throat is a symptom of something far more serious.

“Time can generally take care of it. On the other hand, there are some things that are more concerning. You really have to gauge how you feel otherwise,” Canova says.

These more serious symptoms include:

  • Change in voice – Ordinary hoarseness often accompanies a cold or sore throat. When it sticks around for longer than a week or so, there’s likely something bigger going on.
  • Difficulty swallowing – “Of course, it can hurt to swallow with a sore throat. But a legitimate issue of not being able to swallow food as you normally do is something to look out for,” Canova advises.
  • White markings or pus pockets White spots in the back of your throat can indicate strep throat. Strep is a serious bacterial infection that requires antibiotics to cure before it worsens and spreads.
  • Swollen tonsils – Your tonsils are your immune system’s first line of defense inside the mouth. When they are swollen or inflamed, it’s a sure sign of a viral or bacterial infection. And you need an accurate diagnosis of tonsillitis to resolve it.
  • Yellow spots – Not to be confused with mucus, yellow spots on your tonsils are likely tonsil stones. These yellowish balls are made of debris and bacteria that form in the crevices of the tonsils. A simple saltwater rinse can help, but often tonsil stones are a recurrent issue.
  • Chronic throat pain – A cold or infection can linger for up to two weeks. If your sore throat pain lasts three, four or five weeks with no signs of improvement, you need to be evaluated at the ENT clinic.

While concerning, you’re still less likely to experience these other sore throat issues. Canova likes to share a phrase he learned in his medical training with his patients: “Common things are common. Uncommon things are uncommon.”

“Sore throats are most commonly nothing to be worried about. I don’t want you Googling things and finding something ugly pop up. Because most of the time the answer is no,” he says. “Just manage it at home on your own the best you can. Seek the advice of a primary care or urgent care provider if you need to. If it comes to the point where it’s chronic, we’re absolutely happy to see you and evaluate it ourselves.”

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