Sore throat

Having a sore throat is very common. The discomfort can range from a scratchy feeling to severe pain.

Summary

Sore throats are usually caused by virus infections like colds or the flu.

When to see your doctor

You must see your doctor if you or a family member experiences any of the following:

  • a sore throat that lasts more than a few days
  • difficulty swallowing
  • your tonsils are enlarged or coated
  • a high temperature (above 39°C)
  • swelling in your neck
  • earache or joint pain.

If your child is Māori or Pacific, aged 4 to 19 years, lives in certain parts of the North Island and has a sore throat, please get it checked straight away. They are at risk of a serious but preventable illness called rheumatic fever.

Call Healthline 0800 611 116 if you are unsure what you should do.

Rheumatic fever

Sometimes a sore throat is caused by Streptococcus bacteria (strep throat). A strep throat can lead to rheumatic fever if it is not treated quickly with antibiotics. Rheumatic fever is a serious illness because it can cause heart damage.

For more information, go to Rheumatic fever.

Scarlet fever

Scarlet fever is the same illness as strep throat, but with a skin rash.

Scarlet fever can also lead to rheumatic fever – and to other illnesses, like pneumonia or infections.

The main symptom of scarlet fever is a red rash that feels rough. It usually begins on your chest, spreading to your neck, abdomen and arms.

People with scarlet fever may have flushed checks and a red or white ‘strawberry tongue’.

If you or a family member has this type of rash and a sore throat, get to the doctor quickly so they can check it out.

Glandular fever

Having a sore throat is also one of the symptoms of glandular fever – along with fever and swollen glands in the neck.

Other symptoms of glandular fever include headache, feeling generally unwell, joint pains, tiredness, and loss of appetite.

Glandular fever generally isn’t serious but it can cause tiredness and loss of energy for a longer period – even up to a few months. 

If you think you or a family member may have glandular fever, you should see your doctor.

Treatment

Self care

If you have a common sore throat, some of these things may help.

  • Drink more fluids. (Drinking through a straw may hurt less.)
  • Eat soft foods that are easy to swallow. Don’t eat spicy, salty or acidic foods.
  • Try cold fluids, ice blocks, or honey and lemon juice in hot water.
  • Gargle with warm salt water (1/2 tsp salt in 200ml water).
  • Suck on hard sweets or throat lozenges.
  • Take pain relief such as paracetamol or ibuprofen (as directed by your doctor or pharmacist).
  • Breathe warm, humidified air.
  • If you feel hoarse or lose your voice, rest your throat by talking less until it improves.

Treatment for strep throat

Strep throat is different from a common sore throat and must be treated with antibiotics. This can be given in three ways – capsules, liquid, or as an injection from a nurse or doctor.
 
If you child has the capsules or liquid, they are usually given for 10 days. It is important that your child takes all the antibiotics for the full 10 days, even if they feel better, to stop the strep throat from turning into rheumatic fever.

The one-off antibiotic injection to treat a strep throat might be a good alternative for your child if you think they may find it hard to take the full 10 day course of capsules or liquid.

How antibiotics get rid of a strep throat infection

Strep throat and antibiotics flowchart. The flowchart starts with signs of a throat infection. Next is a swab for strep throat. Next is day 1: start antibiotics for strep throat. Then days 2 to 5: feeling better. Then days 6 to 9: no symptoms. Then day 10: strep throat fixed. Then a healthy mouth and throat.

Taking care with medicines

  • Remember that some medicines aren’t safe for children, or for women during pregnancy.
  • Always read the instructions and ask your doctor or pharmacist if you’re unsure.
  • If you’re given penicillin or other antibiotics, you must take all the medicine you’re given – even after you’re feeling better. 

Prevention

To help stop infections spreading or coming back:

  • Always cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you sneeze or cough.
  • Avoid close physical contact such as kissing, and don’t share eating or drinking utensils (eg, cups or knives and forks).
  • Try to create space between your children when they sleep, to limit the chance of bugs such as those that cause strep throat being spread through coughs and sneezes. This is important all the time – not just when they are sick.

In this section

  • If you’re in the Northland, Auckland, Lakes, Waikato, Bay of Plenty, Gisborne/East Coast, Hawke’s Bay, Porirua or Hutt Valley areas and your child is Māori or Pacific, aged 4 to 19 years and has a sore throat, they can have it checked at a free sore throat clinic. Read more
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