When is a Sore Throat Not Simply a Sore Throat?

Woman sitting on couch clutching her sore throat while drinking herbal honey and lemon tea

You’re most likely reminded of your childhood when you’re dealing with a sore throat. In those days, your sore throat remedies were simple: taking the day off from school and eating lots of chicken noodle soup. Or maybe you eased your sore throat with cough drops and your favorite Netflix show.

A sore throat was a pretty typical occurrence when you were a kid. And that’s how you still view this symptom: routine. You expect it to clear up by itself after a few days.

But what if it’s more than a simple sore throat? A sore throat can, in some cases, be a sign of something more serious going on. But how can you tell?

Common sore throat causes

Sadly, a sore throat is not an especially unique symptom of illness. This is, in part, because the body utilizes mucus to combat infections and that can result in lots of irritation. Many of the following viral sore throats are fairly common as a result:

  • COVID-19: The coronavirus can frequently cause a soar throat. This is more common (and usually more extreme) in both Delta and Omicron variants of COVID-19.
  • Chicken Pox: While typically related to the mosquito-bite-like bumps that develop (and itch), chicken pox can also cause a number of other symptoms, and that includes a sore throat.
  • The Common Cold: You probably know that a stuffy or runny nose often comes with the common cold. Post-nasal drip can drip down the throat, causing irritation and soreness.
  • Mononucleosis (often simply called “mono”): Often, called “the kissing disease,” mono is spread through saliva and usually results in intense fatigue.
  • Influenza: The flu can trigger a wide range of symptoms, including a sore throat. High fever and sore joints are some other symptoms.
  • Croup: This is a common infection that impacts the upper respiratory tract which is particularly common in children. People with Croup often develop a barking like cough along with a sore throat.

Viral illnesses aren’t affected by antibiotics. So your doctor will normally just tell you to rest up and allow your body to heal! You can use things like fluids and cough drops to reduce symptoms.

This will vary by the virus. In some instances, steroids or antivirals can help. If any of the viral symptoms persist, get help.

Common, non-viral causes of sore throats

In some instances, it isn’t a virus but a bacteria that triggers your sore throat symptoms. Strep Throat is a really common bacterial example. Your sore throat will go away in a matter of days with antibiotics for strep throat.

A sore throat isn’t always caused by bacteria or viruses because there are other common causes. Here are a few:

  • Allergic reactions.
  • Chemical or pollutant irritation
  • Acid reflux or heartburn.
  • Irritation from weather (for instance, high heat or frigid cold), particularly in very low humidity.

Can a sore throat mean something more substantial is going on?

In most cases, sore throat causes will be something common, like a cold or flu. But there are circumstances where a serious illness can be the cause of a sore throat. Some of those serious ailments include the following:

  • HIV infections: Your immune system depends heavily on your lymph nodes. When you are dealing with HIV, these lymph nodes fill up with fluid, and this fluid can produce sore throat symptoms.
  • Chronic tonsillitis: There are times when chronic infections assail your tonsils. When these infections occur too often, the tonsils need to be taken out. Both tonsillitis and the surgery to take out your tonsils can trigger a severe sore throat.
  • Cancer: One of a number of types of cancer can, in some situations, lead to a sore throat. Treatments could involve a combination of surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy.
  • Epiglottitis: This potentially fatal inflammation of the epiglottis needs to be treated immediately. It can sometimes be the result of trauma but more frequently is caused by an infection of the Hib (haemophilus influenza type B).
  • Tumors: Sometimes, it’s the tumor itself that can cause your sore throat. Inflammation can put pressure on areas of your throat as the tumor gets bigger. This is particularly true for tumors found in the throat, tongue, or larynx.
  • Thyroid issues: Certain hormones are distributed through your body by your thyroid. When your thyroid has issues it can cause a sore throat because it’s located in your neck.

How do I recognize if my sore throat is common… or serious?

So, you’re experiencing a sore throat and none of your usual sore throat remedies seem to work. It’s normal to wonder if you need to be worried. The good news is that in almost all situations, a sore throat will clear up in only a few days.

However, there are some signs that you might have a more serious concern:

  • Problems breathing: You should contact a medical professional right away if your sore throat is interfering with your breathing.
  • Take an at-home Covid test: It won’t hurt to exclude COVID-19 as a possible source of your sore throat. This can also help prevent you from infecting others with Covid.
  • Your sore throat isn’t going away: If your sore throat persists for more than 3-5 days, that might be a sign that something more serious is happening (even if that something more severe is an especially severe case of strep throat). If your sore throat isn’t clearing up, be certain to make an appointment with us as soon as possible.
  • You have a high fever: Call us immediately if you have a fever with your sore throat and over-the-counter medications like Tylenol aren’t helping.

These aren’t the only indications that you may be experiencing something more significant. If, for example, you find any sores or lumps, be certain to schedule an appointment with us.

So the general rule of thumb is this: sore throats are very common and will usually go away on their own. But if any symptoms persist for longer than two weeks, it’s a good idea to schedule an appointment with us. In the meantime, rest and binge your favorite streaming shows.



The site information is for educational and informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. To receive personalized advice or treatment, schedule an appointment.

Questions? Talk To Us.