Over the past two years or so, any twinge of sore throat, fever or headache may have sent you flying to your computer to do an online search for symptoms of COVID-19. However, COVID-19 isn’t the only cause of throat irritation. In fact, there are several reasons why your throat might hurt and not all of them are contagious, nor worthy of concern.
A sore throat is usually marked by:
- Pain or feelings of dryness, scratchiness or rawness in the throat
- Difficulty talking and swallowing
- Sore and swollen glands in the neck
- Redness or patches of pus in the throat and on the tonsils
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that most sore throats are caused by a virus. Illnesses caused by a virus cannot be treated with antibiotics, but there are a variety of over-the-counter (OTC) medications and a few antiviral medications that can help bring relief. The other common causes are also easily treated.
Some causes of a sore throat can be remedied by simply avoiding the culprit. This includes avoiding smoking or secondhand smoke; dry, indoor air; overuse of your voice; or eating hot and spicy foods.
Here are five common causes of a sore throat:
Let’s get the worst-case scenario out of the way. Yes, one of the possible symptoms of COVID-19 is a sore throat. Other common symptoms include fever, dry cough, difficulty breathing, fatigue, headache and sudden loss of taste or smell. The COVID-19 vaccines available in the U.S. are safe and effective – everyone who is eligible is encouraged to be vaccinated and boosted to possibly avoid this sore throat culprit.
Symptoms of the flu can be mild or severe, much like COVID-19. Along with a sore throat, they can include a fever, headache, muscle aches, cough and fatigue — all of which can last up to a week. An annual flu vaccine is the best source of prevention.
3. Common cold
Like COVID-19 and the flu, the common cold is caused by a virus, and a sore throat can accompany the runny nose, sneezing, cough and congestion you might also experience. Colds usually last just a few days. However, talk to your doctor if your cough becomes more severe, or if you have sinus pain for more than a week, a fever or other worsening symptoms.
4. Strep throat
While COVID-19, the flu and a cold are all caused by a virus, strep throat is an infection caused by streptococcal bacteria. Look for red, swollen tonsils and throat; pus in the back of the throat and on the tongue; swollen lymph nodes in your neck; trouble swallowing; headache; and fever or chills. An in-office test is needed to confirm a strep throat diagnosis.
When your immune system reacts to certain foreign substances — including food, drugs, chemicals, animals or airborne pollen — it can trigger an allergic response. While some reactions can be serious or life-threatening, common seasonal allergy symptoms usually include itchy, watery and puffy eyes; sneezing, runny nose and congestion; coughing; headache; and (you guessed it) sore throat.
Mild cases of the common cold, flu and COVID-19 are primarily treated with OTC medications, lots of fluids and rest. Strep can be treated with the same, plus antibiotics. And there are treatments for mild to moderate COVID-19, including monoclonal antibodies and Paxlovid, an oral antiviral medication. An OTC antihistamine or decongestant may help relieve seasonal allergy symptoms; however, your doctor may also recommend prescription medications, such as steroids.
Flu and COVID-19 can only be confirmed by a test and additional medical care may be required. However, not all who are sick with one — or both, in rare instances — of the illnesses will require medical care, but all should stay home and follow CDC isolation guidance to avoid spreading illness.
Call your doctor if you have been exposed to COVID-19 or if you are experiencing symptoms — even if you have been vaccinated — and get tested. Follow the CDC's guidance on preventing the spread of COVID-19. Emergency care is needed if you have severe shortness of breath; bluish discoloration around your mouth or in your extremities; profound weakness or an inability to walk; or an altered mental state or confusion.
You should also talk to your doctor if you have a sore throat for more than one week or if it is accompanied by hoarseness, shortness of breath, difficulty swallowing, blood in your saliva or a lump in your neck. While throat cancer is rare, early detection and treatment can be life-saving.