Pharyngitis, or sore throat, is swelling, discomfort, pain, or scratchiness in the throat at, and just below the tonsils.
Pharyngitis may occur as part of a viral infection that also involves other organs, such as the lungs or bowel.
Most sore throats are caused by viruses.
Exams and Tests
Your health care provider usually diagnoses pharyngitis by examining your throat. A lab test of fluid from your throat will show that bacteria (such as group A streptococcus, or strep) is not the cause of your sore throat.
There is no specific treatment for viral pharyngitis. You can relieve symptoms by gargling with warm salt water several times a day (use one half teaspoon or 3 grams of salt in a glass of warm water). Taking anti-inflammatory medicine, such as acetaminophen, can control fever. Excessive use of anti-inflammatory lozenges or sprays may make a sore throat worse.
It is important NOT to take antibiotics when a sore throat is due to a viral infection. The antibiotics will not help. Using them to treat viral infections helps bacteria become resistant to antibiotics.
With some sore throats (such as those caused by infectious mononucleosis), the lymph nodes in the neck may become very swollen. Your provider may prescribe anti-inflammatory drugs, such as prednisone, to treat them.
Symptoms usually go away within a week to 10 days.
Complications of viral pharyngitis are extremely uncommon.
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Make an appointment with your provider if symptoms last longer than expected, or do not improve with self-care. Always seek medical care if you have a sore throat and have extreme discomfort or difficulty swallowing or breathing.
Most sore throats cannot be prevented because the germs that cause them are in our environment. However, always wash your hands after contact with a person who has a sore throat. Also avoid kissing or sharing cups and eating utensils with people who are sick.
Melio FR. Upper respiratory tract infections. In: Walls RM, Hockberger RS, Gausche-Hill M, eds. Rosen's Emergency Medicine: Concepts and Clinical Practice. 9th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2018:chap 65.
Nussenbaum B, Bradford CR. Pharyngitis in adults. In: Flint PW, Haughey BH, Lund V, et al, eds. Cummings Otolaryngology: Head and Neck Surgery. 6th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2015:chap 9.
Weber R. Pharyngitis. In: Kellerman RD, Bope ET, eds. Conn's Current Therapy 2018. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2018:50-52.
Review Date 1/14/2018
Updated by: Linda J. Vorvick, MD, Clinical Associate Professor, Department of Family Medicine, UW Medicine, School of Medicine, University of Washington, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.