When there is an irritant in the throat, the nervous system will send an alert to the brain. In turn, the brain will let the muscles in the chest and abdomen know to contract and exhaust air—this is known as a cough.

When a person coughs, the body is protecting itself from irritants such as mucus, smoke and allergens—dust, mold an

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If you have ever had a sore throat, you know how miserable it can make you. Whether it’s simply a symptom of the common cold or something more serious like strep throat or tonsillitis, no one enjoys the feeling it brings.

Also known as pharyngitis, sore throats are most often caused by a viral infection that results in a raw, painful throat and cold-like symptoms. Fortunately, knowing what causes a sore throat and how to prevent one can be a great way to keep yourself pain-free.

What causes a sore throat?

Most sore throats are caused by a viral infection. For those suffering from a common cold, influenza or mononucleosis, it is common for a sore throat to accompany the existing illness.

Allergies and bacterial infections—like an upper respiratory infection or strep throat—can also cause a sore throat.

Sore throat treatment

Unfortunately, antibiotics are only helpful when a sore throat is caused by a bacterial infection. Antibiotics will not help a sore throat caused by a virus.

For most viral infections, no medical treatment is required unless the sore throat lasts longer than a few days.

If a sore throat is caused by strep, you will likely need a penicillin-type medication or another antibiotic. Typically, a provider will prescribe the medication for seven to 10 days.

It’s important that you complete the full dose (even if you notice symptoms diminishing) so that the infection is completely treated. For children, strep poses a risk of rheumatic fever, so finishing all of the medication is especially important.

A healthcare provider can help determine the cause of your sore throat and the best way to treat it. No matter what is causing your sore throat, you should also practice the following at-home care strategies to help you recover more quickly:

  • Get at least eight hours of rest each night
  • Stay hydrated so your throat is kept moist
  • Stick to comforting foods and beverages like warm liquids and cold treats
  • Gargle with ¼ to ½ teaspoon of table salt in 4 to 8 ounces of warm water
  • Keep the air humid by using a cold-air humidifier
  • Use a lozenge or hard candy when needed to sooth your sore throat
  • Stay away from cigarette smoke and cleaning products that can cause irritation

Sore throat symptoms

Sore throat symptoms include throat pain and difficulty swallowing. You may also have cold-like symptoms such as a runny nose, hoarseness or a cough.

If you are suffering from strep throat, you may experience these additional symptoms:

  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Rash
  • Stomachache

If you think you may have strep throat, you should see a provider as the bacterial infection can become serious if left untreated.

How to prevent a sore throat

There are times a sore throat is inevitable—like when it’s caused by allergies. However, you can take several steps to prevent sicknesses like a cold or the flu, which commonly cause sore throats. To keep yourself from getting sick, no matter what time of year, it’s important to:

  • Keep a distance from anyone who is sick
  • Wash your hands regularly with soapy, warm water
  • Avoid sharing food, drinks and utensils with others
  • Avoid touching your eyes and face
  • Eat a healthy diet full of fruits and vegetables
  • Get plenty of rest and aim for eight hours of sleep each night
  • Stay hydrated and drink plenty of fluids

It’s also recommended that those over the age of 6 months get a flu shot every year.

Sore throat or strep throat?

Many people confuse a sore throat with strep throat; however, one is usually much more severe than the other.

When a sore throat is caused by a cold it will usually go away within a day or two.

Strep throat, on the other hand, is more persistent and will typically last longer than two days. Caused by the bacteria Streptococcus pyogenes, strep throat is highly contagious.

The bacterial infection is spread when someone who has contracted the infection sneezes or coughs or when you touch a surface that has been contaminated and then touch your eyes, nose or mouth.

A provider will typically perform a rapid strep test that can offer a proper diagnosis quickly.

Sore throat and allergies

For people who suffer from allergies, sore throats are a very common occurrence.

When you encounter an allergen, such as dust or pollen, your body releases chemicals that increase the amount of mucus your body produces. Because of this, the excess mucus may drain down the throat—an allergy symptom typically called postnasal drip—which can cause a sore throat.

You can tell if your sore throat is caused by allergies if you experience other symptoms like itchy, watery eyes and sneezing. The best way to treat allergies is by taking an antihistamine.

When to see a provider for a sore throat

For sore throats that aren’t severe and seem to be caused by a cold or allergies, it is not necessary to see a provider. However, there are instances when you need to seek medical attention to prevent your sore throat from getting worse or turning into a more serious illness.

Contact a healthcare provider if:

  • Your neck is tender
  • You have trouble swallowing
  • You suspect you have strep throat
  • Your pain is severe
  • Your throat doesn’t get better after a week
  • You are pregnant and the symptoms last longer than three days

CareNow® Urgent Care can help with a sore throat

If you’re suffering from a sore throat that continues for more than a couple days, you should seek medical care so you can be properly treated.

CareNow® has more than 100 urgent care clinics throughout the U.S., so we’re ready to serve you when you need it.

To avoid the waiting room during your visit, be sure to use the Web Check-In® feature on our website.

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Disclaimer: Patient’s health can vary. While this content was approved for publishing by a board certified medical director, always consult with your personal medical professional first before deciding that any medical advice from the internet is right for you.

d pollen being the most common.

While most coughs are simply a result of an irritant in the throat, they can be symptomatic of an illness or other condition. In order to determine the cause of the cough, it is important to note its characteristics.

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What to do for a cough

Although coughs may all seem the same, each one can be characterized differently. The descriptions below can help you determine whether you or your child needs to see a provider for a particular cough.

  • Behavior

    What triggers the cough? Does it tend to happen at night, after eating or while exercising?

  • Duration

    How long has the cough lasted? Is it less than two weeks or more than eight weeks?

  • Side effects

    Are there any other symptoms like vomiting or difficulty sleeping?

  • Characteristics

    Does the cough feel wet or dry? Does it feel like hacking?

  • Level:

    On a scale of 1 to 10, how debilitating is the cough? Does it get in the way of day-to-day activities or keep the person home from work or school?

Please note: If the cough is caused by something blocking the airway, it’s important that you call 911 and begin performing the Heimlich maneuver as quickly as possible—you can even do it on yourself. Signs of choking include panic, bluish coloring of the skin, inability to speak, an ineffective cough and odd breathing noises.

What causes a dry cough?

If the cough sounds raspy or has a whistling sound, it may be caused by bronchiolitis —an infection of the tiny airways of the lungs.

Bronchiolitis is often confused with the common cold since symptoms are so similar, but unlike a cold, bronchiolitis usually progresses to coughing, wheezing (which makes a raspy noise) and sometimes trouble breathing.

Typically, bronchiolitis lasts two to three weeks and will get better on its own. Because bronchiolitis is caused by a virus, antibiotics will not help it heal more quickly.

You can treat the cough at home with over-the-counter cough medicine that includes an expectorant and with pain relievers like ibuprofen (Advil or Motrin), naproxen (Aleve) or aspirin. Also be sure to drink a lot of water and get plenty of rest.

What's a wet cough?

If the cough feels wet and is accompanied by a runny nose, fatigue and postnasal drip, it may be caused by a cold, the flu, asthma, acute bronchitis or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Typically, a wet cough—also known as a productive cough—sounds this way because the body is bringing mucus up out of the respiratory system—this includes the throat, nose, airways and lungs. It can feel like there is something stuck in the back of the throat or in the chest.

A wet cough will usually get better on its own. Most are considered minor and will last less than three weeks, but in some instances, a wet cough can be chronic and last more than eight weeks in adults or four weeks in children.

Over-the-counter medicine, like cough suppressants, expectorants and lozenges help relieve the symptoms, as does drinking plenty of fluids and taking steamy showers or using a humidifier.

What does a dry cough mean?

When it feels like there is a tickle in the back of the throat, it is considered a dry cough. Often caused by an upper respiratory infection like a cold or the flu, this type of cough occurs when there is an irritation in the respiratory tract but there isn’t enough excess mucus to cough it up. These coughs can be the most frustrating type because it is often hard to control and can result in long coughing fits.

After a cold or flu has passed, the dry cough can linger for several weeks. Treat it at home with over-the-counter cough suppressants or lozenges. Since dry airways can make this type of cough worse, the steam from long showers or baths and humidifiers can help, as well as drinking warm beverages like tea.

What is croup cough?

A cough that most commonly affects children under the age of 5 is one caused by croup, an infection that irritates the upper airways and windpipe. This cough is easy to recognize with the telltale “barking” sound that results when air from a cough passes over swollen vocal cords.

Although a cough caused by croup can be very scary for children and their parents, it usually passes on its own in three to five days without any professional treatment.

When caring for a child with croup, skip the cold medications. These aren’t recommended for children younger than age 2, and nonprescription cough medicines won’t help croup. If the child has a fever, try acetaminophen (Tylenol). 

You can help make breathing easier by using a humidifier or sitting with the child in a bathroom filled with steam from a hot shower, holding or placing the child in a comfortable upright position, encouraging rest and offering fluids—for babies, breast milk or formula, and for older children, soup or frozen fruit pops.

When should you see a provider for a cough?

Most of the time a child’s cough will get better on its own without medical treatment. However, if your child has any of the following symptoms, it’s time to see a provider:

  • A cough that lasts for longer than three weeks
  • Discoloration of the skin (either bluish or pale)
  • Wheezing or whooping in addition to coughing
  • Dehydration and inability to swallow food
  • Extreme fatigue
  • A fever about 102 degrees Fahrenheit (or any fever in a child that is under 2 months of age)

For yourself or other adult, it’s advisable to seek medical care if the cough persists, if the person suffering from the cough is older or has existing health complications, or if he or she is experiencing any of the following symptoms:

  • Severe dehydration
  • Wheezing or whooping in addition to coughing
  • A cough that last longer than eight weeks
  • Stomach acid reflux or heartburn that occurs daily
  • Blood when coughing
  • A fever that is higher than 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Inability to walk or talk due to weakness

If you or your child needs treatment for a cough, consider visiting your local CareNow®.

CareNow® Urgent Care can help

Dedicated to reducing your wait while improving your health, we are open after hours and on the weekend so you can be seen when it is most convenient for you.

Be sure to use our Web Check-In® to make your appointment.

This service allows you to wait at home until you are ready to be seen, because when you or your child is sick, the last place you want to be is in the provider’s office waiting room.

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Disclaimer: Patients’ health can vary. Always consult with a medical professional before taking medication, making health-related decisions or deciding if medical advice is right for you.


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