How to Know When it’s More Than Just a Sore Throat

Woman sitting on couch clutching her sore throat while drinking herbal honey and lemon tea

A sore throat is one of those symptoms that probably reminds you of your childhood. Back then, it was easy to deal with a sore throat: staying home from school (watching The Price is Right) and having chicken noodle soup. Or perhaps, some lozenges and some Netflix.

A sore throat was a pretty common event when you were a kid. And that’s how you still view this symptom: routine. When you get a sore throat, you wait a few days and expect to be as good as new.

But what if your sore throat is, well, not simply a sore throat? A sore throat can, in some cases, be a sign of something more serious going on. But how can you tell?

Common sore throat causes

A sore throat, regrettably, comes along with many ailments. This is, in part, because the body utilizes mucus to fight infections and that can result in lots of irritation. As a result, many of the following viral sore throat causes are quite common:

  • Mononucleosis (usually simply called “mono”): Often, called “the kissing disease,” mono is spread via saliva and usually results in extreme fatigue.
  • Croup: This is an infection of the upper respiratory tract, and it’s extremely common in children. In addition to the sore throat, people with Croup will experience a unique “barking” cough.
  • The Common Cold: You probably know that a stuffy or runny nose usually comes with the common cold. Irritation and discomfort will result when post nasal drip trickles down into the throat.
  • Chicken Pox: Chicken pox produces the familiar itchy red bumps we all know, but it also presents other symptoms, such as a sore throat.
  • COVID-19: The coronavirus can frequently cause a soar throat. This is more prevalent (and usually more extreme) in both Delta and Omicron variants of COVID-19.
  • Influenza: A wide range of symptoms, including a sore throat, come along with the flu. High fever and sore joints are some other symptoms.

Antibiotics will have no effect on viral illnesses. Typically, rest and time are what your doctor will recommend. For symptom relief, you can use sore throat remedies like cough drops and fluids.

This will vary by the virus. In some cases, steroids or antivirals can help. Seek treatment if any of these viral symptoms linger.

Common, non-viral causes of sore throats

In some cases, it isn’t a virus but a bacteria that causes your sore throat symptoms. Strep Throat is a really common bacterial example. Typically, antibiotics are prescribed for strep throat, and these therapeutics will get rid of your sore throat symptoms in a matter of days.

There are even a few common causes that have nothing to do with bacteria or viruses. Here are a few:

  • Irritation from weather (for instance, high heat or frigid cold), especially in very low humidity.
  • Chemical or pollutant irritation
  • Allergies or allergic responses.
  • Heartburn or acid reflux.

Can a sore throat mean something more substantial is going on?

In most instances, sore throat causes will be something common, such as a cold or flu. But a sore throat can also be an indication of some less common, but often very serious illnesses. Some of those serious conditions include the following:

  • Tumors: In some cases, it’s the tumor itself that can trigger your sore throat. As the tumor gets bigger, it can put pressure on parts of your throat or create other inflammation. If the tumor is found in the throat, larynx, or tongue this is especially true.
  • HIV infections: Your lymph nodes are a critical part of your immune system. Sore throat symptoms can manifest when HIV causes the lymph nodes to fill up with fluid.
  • Epiglottitis: This potentially fatal inflammation of the epiglottis needs to be addressed immediately. It can occasionally be the result of trauma but more commonly is caused by an infection of the Hib (haemophilus influenza type B).
  • Thyroid issues: Certain hormones are distributed through your body by your thyroid. When your thyroid has issues it can cause a sore throat because it’s located in your neck.
  • Chronic tonsillitis: There are times when persistent infections assail your tonsils. When these infections occur too frequently, the tonsils must be taken out. Both tonsillitis and the surgery to remove your tonsils can trigger an extreme sore throat.
  • Cancer: In some cases, a sore throat can be related to one of several different types of cancer. Treatments could involve a combination of surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy.

How will I recognize if my sore throat is common… or serious?

So, you have a sore throat and none of your normal sore throat remedies seem to be working. It’s normal to wonder if you should be worried. The good news is that in the vast majority of cases, a sore throat will clear up in only a few days.

However, there are some indications that you might have a more serious condition:

  • Your sore throat isn’t going away: If your sore throat lingers for more than 3-5 days, that could be a sign that something more serious is occurring (even if that something more severe is an especially severe case of strep throat). If your sore throat isn’t going away, be sure to schedule an appointment with us as soon as you can.
  • Problems breathing: You should contact a medical professional immediately if your sore throat is interfering with your breathing.
  • You have a high fever: Call us right away if you have a fever with your sore throat and over-the-counter treatments like Tylenol aren’t helping.
  • Take an at-home Covid test: Also think about the possibility that your sore throat might be caused by COVID-19. This can also help prevent you from infecting others with Covid.

There are a few other signs that something significant may be taking place. If you find any lumps or sores, for example, contact us.

So the basic rule of thumb is this: a sore throat is pretty normal and will usually go away on its own. But if any symptoms persist for longer than a couple of weeks, it’s a good idea to make an appointment with us. Just make certain to get some rest and binge your favorite Netflix show in the meantime.


The site information is for educational and informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. To receive personalized advice or treatment, schedule an appointment.

Questions? Talk To Us.