What causes a sore throat?
Viruses cause nine out of 10 sore throats, and antibiotics won’t help if it's caused by a virus. However, some sore throats are bacterial (strep throat) and will need antibiotic treatment.
Sometimes a sore throat can be the start of strep throat, which is caused by a type of bacteria called Group A streptococcus. It can be hard to tell the difference between a viral sore throat and strep throat. There's a risk of a rare complication from strep throat, called rheumatic fever, which can cause permanent heart damage.
Your doctor will examine your child for strep throat and may prescribe antibiotics. Make sure your child finishes all the antibiotics if they're prescribed – even if their symptoms have improved.
An infection of the tonsil, called tonsillitis, can also cause sore throats. Tonsils are glands at the back of the throat, part of the immune system and help to fight germs in the mouth. It’s common for tonsils to get infected by viruses or bacteria. Tonsillitis may require antibiotics if the infection is bacterial.
Your child may have only one, or several of the symptoms listed below with a sore throat:
- a painful or scratchy throat, especially when swallowing
- difficulty swallowing
- redness at the back of the mouth
- bad breath
- cold and flu symptoms like a cough, hoarseness, red eyes and runny nose (these symptoms are usually not seen with strep throat)
- glands in the neck are swollen and can be tender
- tonsils are large
- pain in their ears (usually referred pain, which is when the body feels pain in an area that's not actually hurt, but your child’s ears should be checked by a doctor, as they could have an ear infection)
- a fever
- loss of appetite
- tiredness and generally being unwell.
Sore throats can be painful for kids. There are ways to make your child feel better, and make eating and drinking more comfortable:
- ensure your child gets plenty of rest
- give extras cuddles and allow your child to be near you for comfort
- enjoy reading books together or have quiet time to play
- give them pain relief as needed
- offer your child their normal drinks and sips of cool water. They many need smaller amounts more often if they're finding it sore to drink. This will prevent your child from becoming dehydrated and will help their throat feel less dry and painful
- for older children, ice blocks are a good option as they provide extra fluids as well as soothing a sore throat
- offer normal food, but your child may prefer softer foods if their throat is sore.
When to visit a doctor
Call PlunketLine or take your child to the doctor if:
- you think they may have strep throat
- symptoms haven’t improved after 48 hours
- they haven't been drinking much over the last 24 hours, or you're worried about dehydration
- they're having difficulty swallowing
- they're snoring when asleep
- have tender lumps in the neck that are getting bigger.
See a doctor urgently if your child has:
- drooling (dribbling)
- difficulty breathing
- a new skin rash or bruising
- extreme tiredness or drowsiness
- possibly choked on a foreign object or swallowed a toxic substance.
Call an ambulance immediately if your child is:
- extremely unwell
- having difficulty breathing.
These symptoms may represent a dangerous inflammation of the epiglottis, which is a flap in the throat.