Straight, No Chaser: Simple Questions About Sore Throats


Sore throats. So common. So simple. So sore. Here are a group of frequently asked questions to help you sort out the whys and what next considerations for you and your family.
How do I catch a sore throat?
You only “catch” them when the cause is an infection. Routine measures such as regular hand washing, covering your mouth when sneezing or coughing and keeping your hands out of your mouth go a long way to protecting you from infectious causes of sore throats.


Is a sore throat the same thing as tonsillitis?
Tonsillitis is one of many causes of sore throats. Causes can include infections, smoking, allergies and trauma to the back of your throat. Yes, bad singing can hurt more than someone else’s ears.
So what do I need to know about tonsillitis?
First you should know what and where the tonsils are. Besides being preferred landing spots for ice cream, the tonsils are the tissue located on both sides of the back of your mouth, as highlighted in the picture above. Tonsils are a common site for infection.
How is tonsillitis treated?
The treatment of sore throats in general is based on the cause. Tonsillitis can be caused by either bacterial or viral infections. Viruses do not respond to antibiotics, whereas bacteria do. Tonsillectomies are not needed in most people with tonsillitis. If you get severe tonsillitis often enough, or if you’re having breathing problems, you doctor may consider it.


Is strep throat the same as tonsillitis?
No. Strep throat is a sore throat caused by a specific type of bacteria (Streptococcus).


What is mono?
Mononucleosis (aka mono, the kissing disease) is a viral infection that causes sore throat. One clue that is very suggestive of the presence of mono is gland swelling in the back of your neck, as noted in the above picture.
Are sore throats dangerous?
It depends on the cause. If untreated, strep throat can result in dangerous disease of the kidney (called glomerulonephritis) or the joints and heart (called rheumatic fever). The complications of mononucleosis can be more serious that the disease, including splenic enlargement and rupture, as well as hepatitis (inflammation to the liver).
How does my doctor determine the cause of my sore throat?
Some physicians rely on clinical signs and symptoms. Others will obtain a throat culture or a rapid strep test. These tests are especially important if the decision is being made not to treat, because of the complications mentioned for untreated strep throat. Regarding mono, diagnosis may be confirmed with a blood test.
How are sore throats treated?
If your sore throat is caused by bacteria, you will receive an antibiotic. If it’s caused by a virus, you won’t. Antibiotics are ineffective against viruses. Just as occurs with other viruses such as the common cold, sore throats caused by viruses will go away on their own in 7-10 days.
Regarding specific treatment considerations:

  • If you have strep throat, your doctor will need to know if you’re allergic to penicillin.
  • No one under age 18 should take aspirin. Acetaminophen (e.g., Tylenol) or ibuprofen (e.g., Motrin, Advil) or naproxen (e.g., Aleve) can be given for relief of pain and/or fever.
  • If allergies are the cause of the sore throat, avoiding the causes is the most important consideration. Additional medicine for symptom relief is available.
  • Yes, gargling with warm salt water is effective. Place one teaspoon of salt in eight ounces of water.
  • Sucking on hard candy, throat lozenges, ice cream or frozen foods (e.g., popsicles) can help.
  • Drink plenty of fluids, warm or cool.
  • A humidifier is helpful for easing scratchy throats.

Another Straight, No Chaser post will address a simple way to figure out if your physician is likely to give you antibiotics for your sore throat.

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