What Is a Sore Throat (Pharyngitis)?

What Is a Sore Throat

A sore throat is when your throat feels painful, scratchy, or very dry. It may hurt to swallow or speak. Also called pharyngitis, sore throat is a symptom of inflammation. Infections, dry air, allergies, and other irritants can cause pharyngitis.

Most sore throats are from viral infections such as a cold or the flu. Infection with streptococcal bacteria causes strep throat and tonsillitis, which also hurts your throat.

Sore throat vs. tonsillitis

With an ordinary sore throat, only the tissue of the throat, or pharynx, is inflamed. Tonsillitis happens when the tonsils also become infected. The tonsils are two pads of tissue that sit on either side of the back of your throat. They may look red, swollen, spotted, or have a white or yellow coating.

The same bacteria that cause strep throat (Group A streptococcus) are the most common cause of tonsillitis. Viral infections, including adenoviruses and the virus that causes mononucleosis, also lead to inflamed tonsils.

Types of Sore Throat


Woman massaging lymph nodes in throat while holding a cup of tea

Sore throat (pharyngitis) is a symptom of infection or inflammation. Types of sore throat depend on the cause and location of this symptom and how long it lasts.

  • Viral pharyngitis - Most sore throats are symptoms of a viral infection. Viral illnesses that cause sore throat include the common cold, influenza (flu), and mononucleosis (mono).
  • Bacterial pharyngitis - The most common bacterial infection causing sore throat is strep throat. Bacterial infections also can cause tonsillitis, especially in children.
  • Acute pharyngitis - Acute means short-term—a sore throat that lasts a few days. Both viral and bacterial infections can cause acute pharyngitis.
  • Chronic pharyngitis - Chronic means that the sore throat lasts a few weeks, or goes away and comes back repeatedly. Common causes of chronic pharyngitis include dry air (low humidity), smoking, air pollution, yelling, postnasal drip, breathing through your mouth when you have a stuffy nose, and gastroesophageal reflux (heartburn and an acid taste in your mouth).
  • Strep throatAn infection with streptococcal bacteria
  • Tonsillitis -Tonsils can become inflamed from both viral and bacterial infections, causing a sore throat
  • Laryngitis - Viral infections like the common cold can affect the larynx (voice box). Sore throat may be a symptom, along with hoarse voice, or “losing one’s voice.”

Signs & Symptoms of a Sore Throat


When the pharynx (the back of the throat) becomes inflamed or infected, your throat can feel sore. It’s often the first sign that you’re getting sick. Along with a sore throat, you may have other symptoms like sneezing, runny nose, headache, cough, fatigue, body aches, or fever.
Sore throat symptoms can include:

  • Sore throat pain all the time
  • Pain or difficulty swallowing
  • Pain when talking
  • Scratchiness
  • Dryness

Most of the time, sore throats get better on their own within a few days. If your sore throat lasts longer or you have other severe symptoms, a primary care doctor can help.

You may have strep throat, a bacterial infection that antibiotics can treat. Or pharyngitis may be from long-term irritants like allergies or acid reflux. A primary care doctor can help diagnose the condition causing your sore throat and provide appropriate treatment.

What Causes a Sore Throat?


A sore throat is most often a symptom of viral infection, but bacterial infections can cause pharyngitis too. Other sources of irritation can also result in an inflamed and sore throat.
The most common viral infections that cause a sore throat are:

  • Common cold viruses (rhinoviruses, adenoviruses)
  • Influenza (flu) virus
  • Epstein-Barr virus, which causes mononucleosis (mono)

Less common viral causes of pharyngitis:

Many bacterial infections can cause sore throat, most commonly:

  • Group A Streptococcus (strep throat, tonsillitis)

Irritants that may cause sore throat:

How to Prevent a Sore Throat


The best way to prevent a sore throat is to avoid getting sick. Colds and flu are often the cause of sore throat. Take these steps to stay healthy:

  • Keep your distance from people who are sick
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water
  • Use hand sanitizer when hand washing is not possible
  • Don’t share food with others, drink from the same glass, or share utensils
  • Avoid touching your face and eyes
  • Keep allergies under control
  • Eat a healthy diet
  • Get plenty of sleep
  • Drink water and other fluids
Get Care

Trust NewYork-Presbyterian for Sore Throat Care

At NewYork-Presbyterian, our experienced primary care physicians can explain all the treatment options for pharyngitis. Make a same-day appointment for critical care needs, or take advantage of appointments during early, late, or weekend hours at our convenient locations. In some instances, pharyngitis can be addressed through a virtual urgent care visit. We accept most insurance.