What is a Sore Throat? Causes, Symptoms, Treatment

It starts out as a tickle you barely notice when you wake up in the morning. By the end of the day, your sore throat feels like a 3-alarm fire. You can’t get to the drug store fast enough; and, oh, what was that home remedy your friend’s mother says she swears by?

Sore throats are a painful annoyance and also a common symptom of colds and flu, leading to more than 15 million doctor’s visits each year.1 If you’re like most people, you don’t think about a sore throat until you’ve got one. But, you can be prepared ahead of time with the Vicks lineup of reliable cold and flu remedies, so you can have relief at hand at the earliest signs of a sore throat that means business. Vicks has your sore throat covered.

Learn more about what a sore throat is and its causes, so you can find the best sore throat treatment for you—or prevent the spread altogether.

What is Sore Throat?

A sore throat is an inflammation at the back of throat and surrounding area, known as the pharynx, in medical terminology. An inflamed throat is commonly referred to by healthcare providers as “pharyngitis.” The pain and discomfort you feel when you have a sore throat comes from the activation of pain receptors by inflammatory molecules, such as prostaglandins.2 These molecules are part of the immune response. They help ward off infection and begin the healing and repair process. They have potent activating effects on pain-sensing nerves and also promote inflammation, which is how your body fights pathogens and infection.

That inflammation leads to common sore throat symptoms like scratchiness, pain, swelling, and discomfort.

Sometimes, a sore throat is one of the first signs that you’ve caught a cold or the flu. A simple check in your bathroom mirror may reveal visible redness at the back of your throat.

The inflammation associated with a sore throat may extend to your tonsils, small patches of immune tissue that are part of your lymphatic system and act as one of your body’s first lines of defense against any pathogens you may be exposed to in the air or in your food.

Sore throat symptoms can worsen if you’re suffering from nasal congestion because you may need to breathe more out of your mouth, which can dry the throat and cause it to feel more sore.

Causes of Sore Throat

Both infectious and non-infectious causes can lead to sore throat. Allergies are one of the common non-infectious causes for sore throat. If you are sensitive to inhaled allergens, such as pollen or pet dander, you might get a sore throat as part of the allergic response. You can also get a sore throat from exposure to irritants such as smoke or dry indoor air.

In sore throat caused by infection, the infectious agent triggers inflammation at the infection site (along with accompanying pain, redness, and swelling), signaling the body to send white blood cells and antibodies into the affected tissues to fight off the invading pathogen. The soreness you feel in your throat is the direct result of this inflammation.

By far, the most common cause of infectious sore throat is cold and flu viruses.1

Since the average adult experiences 2-3 colds per year7 and the average school-age child gets 2-9 colds per year,8 that adds up to a lot of people spending a lot of time coping with the pain and irritation from a sore throat.

Several hundred viruses have been identified as being capable of causing sore throat.2 A viral sore throat may occur along with certain other characteristic symptoms, such as cough, runny nose, hoarseness, sores on the mouth (oral ulcers), or redness and irritation of the white parts of the eyes (conjunctivitis).3

There are also some infectious causes of sore throat not related to cold or flu viruses. For example, a common bacterial cause of sore throat occurs from a group of bacteria known as group A Streptococcus, also known as strep throat.3

Additionally, certain people may develop a sore throat due to a type of fungal infection involving the mouth and throat that is commonly called thrush.4

These types of non-viral sore throat can either indicate or develop into a serious medical condition and should always be evaluated and treated by your healthcare provider.

How to Treat a Sore Throat

Even though it may be uncomfortable to drink, staying well-hydrated is especially important for helping your body fight off a sore throat from a cold or flu. Hot tea and broth are ideal for this purpose.

For sore throats caused by an invading cold or flu virus, gargling with salt water can help reduce the pain.5 Salt water has been found to be as effective at reducing levels of certain types of germs in the mouth.5

Most cold and flu sore throats can be alleviated with the help of over-the-counter medicines from Vicks.

VapoCOOL Lozenges and Sore Throat Spray

Ready to vaporize your sore throat pain? VapoCOOL Lozenges and VapoCOOL Spray both offer dual action powerful relief, with benzocaine to numb your sore throat, and menthol to cool it.


Make your hot drink do double duty with sore throat relief and powerful cold and flu medicine all in one. FluTherapy relieves sore throat pain with acetaminophen and clears congestion with the nasal decongestant phenylephrine. Daytime FluTherapy’s non-drowsy formula contains the cough suppressant dextromethorphan to control cough. To help control your cough so you can get a full night's sleep, choose FluTherapy Nighttime, which contains the same pain-relief and decongestant along with the antihistamine diphenhydramine. Both FluTherapy products are available in a tasty honey lemon flavor.


Soothing throat drops like Vicks VapoDrops, temporarily relieve your impulse to cough, help soothe your sore throat, and bring welcome relief. Throat lozenges stimulate production of saliva and mucus, which is important for maintaining lubrication and protecting the delicate membranes of the throat.

Menthol, the active ingredient in Vicks VapoDrops, has a cooling effect and also temporarily relieves cough.

For your worst sore throat pain, try VapoCOOL SEVERE Drops. They soothe your sore throat pain with the trusted Vicks Vapors you know, in a powerful drop.

DayQuil and NyQuil

Over-the-counter cold and flu medications can help when you have cold and flu symptoms. NyQuil Cold & Flu and DayQuil Cold & Flu both contain acetaminophen, a pain reliever/fever reducer than can help soothe your sore throat as well as muscle aches and pains. Although NyQuil and DayQuil do not cure a sore throat, they can help you feel better while your body heals.

How to Avoid Sore Throat Symptoms

When thinking about how to relieve a sore throat, it’s best to start before you have one. A two-fold prevention approach can help you avoid the viruses that bring on painful sore throat symptoms:

  1. Support Your Immunity

A strong, healthy immune system improves your chances of fending off viruses and helps you recover quickly if, or when, you do get sick. To support your immune system, make sure to get plenty of rest, stay well- hydrated every day, and eat a healthy, well-balanced diet. As an added preventive measure, gargle with salt water daily.5

  1. Practice Safe Hygiene

Since many sore throats are the result of cold and flu viruses, the best way to avoid coming into contact with them is to practice good hygiene. Top of the list for healthy hygiene habits, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is washing your hands frequently throughout the day for at least 20 seconds with soap and water.6 And if you already have a cold or flu virus, you can ensure you don’t spread your symptoms to those around you.

Hand washing is one of the most effective ways to avoid infecting yourself and others. The CDC’s hand-washing guidelines say that you should wash your hands:

  • Before, during, and after preparing food;
  • Before eating;
  • After using the toilet or blowing your nose;
  • After touching an animal;
  • After handling trash.

Other hygiene do’s and don’ts for preventing the spread of viruses include:

  • Do use alcohol-based hand sanitizers when soap and water are not available.
  • Do avoid close contact with people who are sick.
  • Don’t share drinking glasses or utensils.
  • Don’t touch your eyes, nose, or mouth with unwashed hands.
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