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Health Education

Sore throat treatments and medications

Cropped SingleCare logo By | Updated on May 12, 2020
Medically reviewed by Gerardo Sison, Pharm.D.

Sore throat causes | Sore throat diagnosis | Sore throat treatment options | Sore throat medicine | Best medicine for sore throats | Side effects of sore throat medicine | Sore throat remedies | FAQ

What causes a sore throat?

A sore throat, or pharyngitis, is pain or irritation in the throat, sometimes characterized by feelings of scratchiness or inflammation in the throat. A sore throat may become worse upon swallowing. A common cause of sore throats is a viral infection, which means  sore throat could be a symptom of the flu or a common cold. Sore throats can also be caused by other factors, such as:

  • Smoking
  • Allergies
  • Air pollution
  • Dry air
  • Nasal drainage
  • Acid reflux
  • Yelling

While most sore throats clear up on their own, there are many options to treat the pain associated with a sore throat such as gargling with warm salt water or sucking on throat lozenges. If a sore throat persists, it is important to go to a doctor for medical advice.

When should you go to the doctor for a sore throat?

At-home remedies and over-the-counter medication will improve most sore throats, since most are caused by viral infections, such as the common cold, or environmental factors. However, if a sore throat persists or comes with a fever of 100 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, it is important to visit your primary care physician. A sore throat accompanied by a fever could be a sign of something more serious and may require treatment with a prescription. For example, it could be tonsillitis, scarlet fever, pneumonia, mononucleosis, rheumatic fever, or streptococcal pharyngitis (strep throat).

Your primary care physician or pediatrician can treat sore throats. First, the physician will perform a routine exam, feeling the throat and looking at the back of the throat by depressing the tongue and shining a light into your mouth.

Based on your symptoms, the doctor may run a strep throat test in the office with a rapid test. In this test, he or she will swab the back of your throat and send a sample to the lab to confirm the diagnosis. This is also known as a throat culture; it tests for Streptococcus pyogenes, the bacteria that causes strep throat. In rare circumstances where you may need more specialized treatment, such as a tonsillectomy, it is possible the primary care physician may refer you to an otolaryngologist or ENT (ear, nose, and throat) doctor.

In rare circumstances where a patient will need more specialized treatment, such as a tonsillectomy, it is possible the primary care physician may refer you to an otolaryngologist or ENT (ear, nose, and throat) doctor.

Questions to ask your doctor during your appointment:

  • What caused my sore throat?
  • What is the best sore throat treatment for my symptoms or condition?
  • Is there anything I need to avoid during treatment?
  • How long after treatment will my sore throat last?
  • What can I do to prevent sore throats in the future?
  • How can I avoid spreading this sore throat to my family and friends?

Sore throat treatment options

For those suffering from a sore throat that does not need medical attention, there are home remedies and over-the-counter options available to alleviate pain. These include staying hydrated, using lozenges, or gargling warm water with salt.

If at-home sore throat remedies are not cutting it, there are over-the-counter medicines that can help soothe a sore throat, such as acetaminophen, ibuprofen, or throat sprays. These could also help with fever associated with a sore throat.

If a doctor visit is required for the sore throat, there are a variety of prescription medications that could treat the underlying condition causing the sore throat. This includes prescriptions for antibiotics or allergy medication, for example.

Sore throat medicine

Over-the-counter medication

Over-the-counter medications can help decrease the amount of pain caused by the sore throat. They also may help stop an underlying cause of sore throat. For example, cough suppressants can help because the cough may be worsening the sore throat. Decongestants or antihistamines can help reduce post-nasal drip, which may be further irritating the throat. These over-the-counter medications may include:

  • Pain relievers, such as Tylenol (acetaminophen), can help decrease pain from a sore throat and possible associated fever. 
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as Advil/Motrin (ibuprofen), Aleve (naproxen) or Bayer (aspirin), can also help alleviate pain from a sore throat. However, aspirin is not a safe option for children or teenagers due to the risk of Reye’s syndrome. This rare condition has been linked to aspirin use in children who have been sick with a viral illness. Without prompt treatment, it can lead to fatal swelling in the liver and brain.
  • Decongestants can help break up mucus which may contribute to a sore throat. Decongestants come in oral forms, such as Sudafed (pseudoephedrine), or nasal sprays, such as Afrin (oxymetazoline). Keep in mind, Afrin use should be limited to no more than 3 days to prevent rebound congestion
  • Throat sprays, such as Cepacol (dyclonine) or Chloraseptic (phenol), help numb the throat and decrease pain from a sore throat.
  • Cough suppressants, such as Delsym (dextromethorphan), helps control coughing. Medicines like Mucinex (guaifenesin) can thin out phlegm, making it easier to cough up. 

Prescription medication

If a sore throat is caused by strep throat, pneumonia, or tonsillitis, it is likely that a doctor will prescribe antibiotics. Penicillin-based drugs are most commonly prescribed, including penicillin and amoxicillin pills. However, in some occasions a doctor may give a shot of benzathine penicillin G. For those allergic to penicillin, the common antibiotics would likely include cephalexin, cefadroxil, clindamycin, azithromycin, and clarithromycin. On average, these antibiotics will be taken by mouth 1-3 times a day for 5-10 days, depending on the infection 

Antibiotics work by killing the bacteria causing the infection. It is important to finish all antibiotics prescribed, even if the pain of a sore throat has improved, otherwise all of the bacteria may not be killed. Side effects of antibiotics include digestive issues and allergic reactions. Digestive issues are typically mild and subside after finishing the medication. These include: nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, and decrease in appetite. Allergic reactions include: itchy skin or hives, wheezing, coughing, and tightness in the throat which can cause difficulty breathing. Mild reactions can typically be improved with antihistamines, but if you experience severe rash or trouble breathing, you should seek medical attention immediately.

What is the best medicine for a sore throat?

Medication for your sore throat will depend on a variety of factors including your diagnosis, medical history, current medications, and allergies to medication. The best medication for your sore throat should be discussed with your doctor. A list of possible options may include:

Drug Name Drug Class OTC/Rx Administration Route Standard Dosage for Adults How It Works Most Common Side Effects
Tylenol (acetaminophen) Analgesic/Antipyretic OTC Oral 325-650 mg tablet every 4-6 hours Relieves pain and reduces fever Nausea, abdominal pain, liver damage
Advil (ibuprofen) NSAIDs OTC Oral 200-400 mg tablet every 4-6 hours Relieves pain and reduces fever Nausea, vomiting, increase in blood pressure
Bayer (aspirin) NSAIDs OTC Oral 325-650 mg tablets every 4 hours Relieves pain and reduces fever Upset stomach, easy bleeding or bruising, stomach ulcer
Sudafed (Pseudoephedrine) Nasal decongestant OTC Oral 60 mg tablet every 4-6 hours Shrinks blood vessels in nasal cavity Restlessness, high blood pressure, fast heart rate
Afrin (Oxymetazoline) Nasal decongestant OTC Nasal spray 2-3 sprays in each nostril once or twice daily Shrinks blood vessels in nasal cavity Burning sensation, sneezing, nasal irritation
Cepacol (dyclonine) Anesthetic for topical use OTC Lozenge 1 lozenge every 2 hours Numbs throat Mouth irritation, stinging
Chloraseptic (phenol) Anesthetic OTC Throat spray 1 spray on affected area every 2 hours, hold for 15 seconds and spit out Numbs throat Nausea, mouth irritation
Penicillin V Antibiotic Prescription Oral 500 mg tablet 2-3 times daily Kills bacteria causing sore throat Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea
Amoxicillin  Antibiotic Prescription Oral 500 mg capsule every 12 hours Kills bacteria causing sore throat Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea
Cephalexin (Keflex) Antibiotic Prescription Oral 500 mg capsule every 12 hours Kills bacteria causing sore throat Diarrhea, indigestion, nausea
Cefadroxil Antibiotic Prescription Oral 1000 mg capsule every 24 hours Kills bacteria causing sore throat Diarrhea, vomiting, nausea

A doctor will determine the best dosage for you based on your medical condition, response to sore throat treatment, age, and weight among other factors.

Other side effects may occur. This is not a complete list.

What are common side effects of sore throat medicine?

Side effects for sore throat medicine are typically mild and may include: dizziness, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and fatigue. When talking to your doctor, discuss all potential side effects and if there will be any interactions with other medications you may be taking. If you begin to have difficulty breathing or trouble swallowing after taking sore throat medication, see a doctor immediately.

What are the best sore throat remedies?

When you develop a sore throat, there are a variety of remedies you can try at home:

  • Drinking warm liquids, such as hot teas, soups, or broth and staying hydrated can help soothe a sore throat. Adding honey, peppermint, licorice root, and ginger will also help decrease scratchiness.
  • Gargling with warm salt water can help reduce swelling and irritation in the throat and can be done up to every hour, with ¼ to ½ teaspoon of salt in 8 oz of warm water.
  • Using a humidifier while you sleep can improve sore throats caused by dry air.
  • Quitting smoking or avoiding secondhand smoke can eliminate a potential cause of sore throats.
  • Decreasing abusive vocal habits like excessive throat clearing, yelling, or using improper vocal registers can help reduce throat irritation.
  • Eating a popsicle or sucking on hard candy will help stimulate saliva production and can improve sore throats caused by dryness in the throat.
  • Getting some rest. If a sore throat is caused by the flu or common cold, it is vital to give your body the self care it needs.
  • Changing your diet can help sore throats caused by acid reflux. Avoiding spicy or fried foods, not eating late at night, and sleeping on an incline can improve some cases of acid reflux.

Frequently asked questions about sore throats

How long does a sore throat last?

Depending on the source of the sore throat, the length of a sore throat varies. Those from viruses typically will last from three to 10 days. Sore throats from bacterial infections may last longer if not treated and require antibiotics.

How do I get rid of a sore throat quickly?

Most sore throats will need to run their course, but trying over-the-counter medications and home remedies will provide pain relief and reduce irritation from the sore throat.

Do I need antibiotics for a sore throat?

If a sore throat is from a bacterial infection, antibiotics will be required to clear it up. A doctor can help diagnose the cause of the sore throat and assess whether antibiotics are required.

What is a natural remedy for throat infections?

There are many natural remedies you can try for a sore throat including:

  • Drinking hot herbal tea with honey and ginger
  • Gargling with salt water
  • Using a humidifier
  • Staying hydrated and resting
  • Using an herbal spray that contains echinacea, sage, and other essential oils

As a reminder, infections that are bacterial will typically require antibiotics, but natural remedies may still decrease the pain associated with the sore throat.