Sore Throat & Headache: Causes & Treatments

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Sore throat and headache are common symptoms that may occur together, like with the flu or allergies. A sore throat is pain or scratchiness of the throat, whereas a headache is pain or discomfort in the head or face.

This article will review the health conditions associated with a sore throat and headache. It will also explore the treatment and possible prevention of these conditions. 

Woman lying on couch with hand on forehead

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Symptoms of Sore Throat and Headache

Symptoms of a sore throat or headache depend on the cause.

Sore Throat

A sore throat presents as a scratchy, uncomfortable, dry, or tender sensation in the throat. The discomfort or pain can be mild or severe and may worsen with swallowing or talking.

Signs and symptoms that can accompany a sore throat include:

Emergency Medical Help

Most sore throats are not dangerous except in rare instances. Call 911 or go to the emergency room if your or your child's sore throat is accompanied by the following:

  • Difficulty breathing or swallowing
  • Trouble opening your mouth
  • Drooling or muffled ("hot potato") voice


Headaches vary in location, severity, and quality and are classified as primary or secondary headaches.

Primary headaches have no underlying cause, whereas secondary headaches arise from an underlying health-related condition or other factor (e.g., illness or medication).

Two of the most common primary headaches are:

  • Tension-type headaches cause a mild to moderate squeezing or tightening sensation around the head.
  • Migraine headaches cause throbbing pain on one or both sides of the head. Nausea or vomiting and light and sound sensitivity are also often present.

There are multiple secondary causes for a headache, and what the headache feels like depends on that underlying cause.

For example, a sinus headache develops from inflammation, infection, or a sinus structural abnormality, like polyps (benign growths) or cysts.

Sinus headaches cause dull pain or pressure in the forehead, cheeks, or behind the eyes. The pain often worsens when the affected person bends forward or lies down.

Emergency Medical Help

Most headaches are not dangerous except in rare instances. Call 911 or go to the emergency room if your or your child's headache is:

  • Severe, begins abruptly, and/or is the "worst headache of your life"
  • Accompanied by head trauma, high fever, stiff neck, eye problems, passing out, confusion, or stroke symptoms

What Causes Sore Throat and Headache?

A few health conditions can cause both sore throat and headache.

Viral Infections

Viral infections are illnesses you get from a tiny germ called a virus.

The following viral infections may cause both a sore throat and headache:

  • The common cold is a group of illnesses caused by different viruses, like the rhinovirus. Colds are generally mild, lasting three to seven days.
  • Influenza, known as the flu, causes more severe symptoms, like muscle pain and high fever, than the common cold. A headache is much more likely to occur with influenza than a cold.
  • COVID-19 is a widespread coronavirus that first appeared in late 2019. Symptoms vary from person to person and can be mild or severe. You should test for COVID-19 if you have a sore throat and/or headache.
  • Mononucleosis, also called mono, is caused by the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV). It's common in adolescents and young adults and is generally a mild illness, although the fatigue associated with mono can be severe.
  • Sinusitis refers to swelling of the lining of the nose and sinuses (hollow spaces within the facial bones). It's associated with thick nasal drainage and facial pressure, most commonly due to a viral infection.

With these infections, a sore throat may develop from the offending virus attacking the back of the throat, causing it to swell and turn red.

Postnasal drip—when mucus in the nose and sinuses drips down the throat—also contributes to irritation, especially with viral sinusitis.

Viral infections can cause headaches for a few different reasons, such as:

  • Nose and sinus congestion may lead to a sinus headache.
  • The inflammatory impact of the virus on the brain and nervous system can cause a headache resembling a tension-type or migraine headache.
  • Excess cytokine release has been studied as a cause of headaches in COVID-19 and other infections. Cytokines are small proteins that help your body fight infections. Some cytokines promote inflammation, triggering unpleasant symptoms like headaches.

What Is a COVID Headache Like?

COVID-19 headaches are moderate to severe in intensity, occur on both sides of the head, and have a pressing or throbbing quality.

Bacterial Infections

Certain bacterial infections cause a sore throat and headache.

Group A Streptococcus infection of the throat, which may involve the tonsils, is known as strep throat. It occurs in up to 30% of children and 15% of adults with sore throats.

The bacteria from group A Streptococcus inflame the tonsils causing them to become red, swollen, tender, and sometimes streaked with pus (a whitish-yellow liquid).

Besides sore throat and other classic strep symptoms like fever and enlarged lymph nodes in the neck, headache may also be present, especially in children.

Meningitis is inflammation of the tissue covering the brain and spinal cord (meninges). It classically causes fever, neck stiffness, and headache. The meningitis headache is severe, felt all over the head, and may resemble a migraine.

Cold-like symptoms like a sore throat or cough may also occur in meningitis, sometimes before the onset of the headache. These cold-like symptoms are more typical of viral vs. bacterial meningitis.

Allergic Rhinitis

Allergic rhinitis describes inflammation of the inside of the nose due to exposure to specific allergens (harmless proteins that a person's immune system may overreact to).

Postnasal drip can cause a sore throat in allergic rhinitis. Swelling and irritation of the throat may also cause it to feel itchy, along with the nose, eyes, and inner ears.

Nasal congestion with allergic rhinitis can trigger a headache. Sometimes, the headache associated with allergic rhinitis mimics that of a migraine.

How to Treat Sore Throat and Headache

Various therapies treat conditions associated with a sore throat and headache.

Sore Throat Remedies

Most sore throats can be treated at home with an over-the-counter (OTC) pain reliever, such as:

Talk With a Healthcare Professional

Be sure to speak with a healthcare provider before taking any OTC drugs, as they may potentially cause harm. For example, NSAIDs can increase a person's risk of stomach bleeding, heart attack, and stroke.

Besides OTC pain relievers, various home remedies can help soothe throat pain. These include throat lozenges containing a numbing agent like benzocaine and lemon tea mixed with honey.

Sometimes, a person may need another type of medication to treat the underlying cause of the sore throat (and headache).

For instance, a person with strep throat needs an antibiotic like Amoxil (amoxicillin). Likewise, a high-risk individual with influenza or COVID-19 may require an antiviral drug, such as Tamiflu (oseltamivir) or Paxlovid (nirmatrelvir-ritonavir), respectively.

People with suspected EBV infections should be advised to refrain from contact sports owing to the increased risk of splenic rupture secondary to EBV. 

Headache Remedies

Tylenol or an NSAID, the same OTC painkiller used to treat a sore throat, can alleviate headaches. Home remedies like placing a cold compress on your head or napping in a dark, quiet room can also be helpful.

As with sore throats, the root cause of the headache may require treatment with a prescription drug. For example, a person with meningitis requires treatment with intravenous (IV) antibiotics or antiviral drugs.

Likewise, a steroid nasal spray like Flonase (fluticasone propionate) is best for treating allergy-related symptoms.

In some cases, a particular type of headache medication is needed to relieve severe or persistent headaches. For instance, a person with severe migraine may require a triptan, such as Imitrex (sumatriptan).

What About Young Children?

It's essential to talk with a pediatrician if your child is experiencing a sore throat and headache. The above treatments may not be appropriate for them.

Notably, the NSAID aspirin should be avoided in kids under 19, as it's linked to a potentially fatal condition called Reye's syndrome. Also, avoid giving honey to babies under 1 year old to prevent botulism, a potentially fatal nervous system condition.

Lastly, children younger than 5 should not use throat lozenges for throat pain due to the risk of choking.

How to Prevent Sore Throat and Headache

You can prevent yourself or your child from getting sick and developing a sore throat and headache by hand-washing frequently and ensuring updated vaccinations (e.g., the COVID-19 vaccine and the flu shot).

Infections can also be prevented by boosting your immune system with the following lifestyle behaviors:

  • Eating a well-balanced diet
  • Engaging in daily physical activity
  • Establishing a regular sleep schedule
  • Avoiding smoking and limiting alcohol intake

Lastly, trigger avoidance, if possible, is a valuable preventive strategy for allergic rhinitis, a common cause of sore throat and headache. Skin testing at an allergist's office can help identify specific allergens (substances that trigger an allergic reaction). Common ones include dust mites, mold, pet dander, and pollen from trees, grasses, and weeds.

When to See a Healthcare Provider

Most sore throats and headaches are not worrisome, though they sometimes can be the first signs of something serious in your body. See a healthcare provider if your or your child's sore throat or headache is severe, persistent, or worsening.

Also, seek medical attention if your (or your child's) sore throat is accompanied by the following:

  • Fever over 101 degrees F
  • Rash
  • Hoarseness lasting more than two weeks
  • Blood in the saliva
  • Swelling/lump in the neck or face

Likewise, to be safe, if you have a headache, see a healthcare professional if you are pregnant, postpartum, or have a history of cancer or a weakened immune system.


Sore throat and headache may coexist in various health conditions, including strep throat, allergies, and viral infections like the flu and COVID-19. Over-the-counter pain relievers can often treat a sore throat and headache, although other medications or therapies may be needed, depending on the underlying cause.

A person can help prevent most conditions that cause a sore throat and headache by avoiding allergen triggers (if relevant) and engaging in healthy lifestyle behaviors like eating a healthy diet and exercising. Washing your hands and staying updated on vaccinations are also preventive strategies.

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Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Colleen Doherty, MD
 Colleen Doherty, MD, is a board-certified internist living with multiple sclerosis.