Am I the only one? How common is a sore throat?

Uh oh – you can feel it coming! The painful, scratchy feeling that tells you a sore throat is on its way. Most of us would recognise a sore throat as one of the first signs of colds and flu. Adults usually catch at least two common colds per year – children even more – which makes throat pain one of the most common reasons people will go to their doctor.

When someone says they have a ‘sore throat’, most of the time they mean they have a pain in their neck – literally, pain in the pharynx (the muscular tube at the back of your mouth connecting the sinuses and food pipe), the larynx (or voice box) or in the tonsils (the soft tissue lumps at both sides of the back of the throat). However, the term ‘sore throat’ can affect any part of the throat lining – either all at once, or different parts of the throat at different times.

Why me? What causes a sore throat?

In most cases, the cause of throat pain in adults are viral infections – in fact 8–9 out of 10 cases* are caused by the tricky little things! This means antibiotics are not useful in treating most sore throats. There are other causes of pain in the throat, including allergens, pollution and dry air. Other factors like cold temperature and low humidity can play a role in the development of a sore throat, so take a look around you when you start to feel that scratchy, tickly tell-tale warning sign that a sore throat is incoming.

Interestingly, most of the discomfort you feel from a sore throat is actually caused by inflammation. In the case of viral infection, your immune system creates inflammation at the site of infection to help kill the virus – and it’s this response that is most likely the cause of the pain and discomfort you feel. Don’t worry though, there are ways to help relieve the symptoms of a sore throat.

*Worral G. Can Fam Phys. 2011.

Sometimes it’s OK, sometimes it’s not – sore throats can feel different at different stages of infection

How your throat feels may be different to other people, we are all unique after all! Depending on how inflamed your throat is, it can feel anything from irritated or uncomfortable all the way up to more severe, swollen throat pain.

At first, when an infection is setting in and getting comfortable, a sore throat might feel more dry, scratchy, tickly and irritated – or even husky (that’s the fun part where you sound like a lounge singer from the ‘50s). As your body’s immune system fights back and inflammation sets in, your throat might feel more inflamed, swollen, like it’s burning or it might be painful to talk or swallow. If you take a look inside your throat in the mirror, it might appear red and swollen. As the infection is fought off, the inflammation will subside, and your throat may start to feel more like normal.

While your throat is infected, the discomfort can make swallowing, talking, eating, sleeping, working and concentrating a little harder than usual, so do yourself a favour and take some time off to rest. People also turn to symptomatic relief to help get them through the pain and discomfort of a sore throat – remember, you don’t just want something to kill the bugs, you want something to soothe the inflammation to help relieve a known cause of the pain.

Is this my life now? How long will a sore throat last?

While a sore throat can be a pain to live with, in most cases won’t be around for long. In around 40% of people, throat pain disappears in about 3 days. Within a week, most people with a sore throat are symptom-free.

Kenealy T. BMJ Clin Evidence 2014.

Action plan: what to do if you get a sore throat

A sore throat is one of the symptoms associated with COVID-19. If you are experiencing pain in your throat refer to the Australian Government Department of Health website for advice on COVID-19 testing.

Sore throats summarised

A sore throat is a common occurrence both in childhood and into your adulthood. It’s usually a sign of an impending cold, but can develop for other reasons. Importantly, most of the pain of a sore throat is actually caused by inflammation, so targeting the inflammation is a good place to start when looking for relief. Though they don’t tend to stick around for long, a sore throat can range from uncomfortable to downright painful, but relief is simple to find – just look for the Difflam range of sore throat products in your local pharmacy or supermarket.

Frequently asked questions about relieving a sore throat

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Yes. Most sore throats are caused by viruses which infect the lining of the throat. The most common cause of sore throats are the viruses that cause the common cold (rhinoviruses). Because colds and flu can be passed from person to person from hand to mouth or by inhaling viral particles from the air, hand hygiene is an important part of helping prevent and avoid sore throats. Sometimes a sore throat is caused by allergy or the environment.

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Rather than eating or drinking specific things, try to stay hydrated by drinking plenty of cool or warm fluids (like a good old cup of tea). You can also try eating cool, soft foods (think ice cream or frozen fruit like watermelon) when you have a sore throat.

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Throat pain has been reported by people with heatburn. You should see your doctor if you experience symptoms of a sore throat and heartburn or indigestion.

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At first, a sore throat may not look like much but feel more dry, scratchy or even tickly as the virus infects and destroys healthy cells in the lining of your throat. When your immune system starts to fight the infection, the cardinal signs of inflammation, such as redness, swelling/inflammation in your throat may be visible if you look in a mirror.