How a Sore Throat Is Treated

A sore throat often signals an oncoming cold. Home remedies may help with some types of sore throat, while others may require medical treatment. A sore throat due to strep throat, for example, usually requires antibiotic treatment in order to prevent serious complications.

This article discusses the various treatment options for sore throat, from home remedies to over-the-counter (OTC) medications, prescription medications, and more.

Home Remedies for a Sore Throat
Verywell / Brianna Gilmartin

Home Remedies

Most sore throats clear up on their own within one week. The following natural remedies and comfort care tips may help soothe your pain.

Salt Water Gargle

This classic sore throat remedy may help relieve pain, break down mucus, and reduce swelling.

  • Add 1/2 teaspoon of salt into a cup of warm water and let it dissolve.
  • Pour some salt water in your mouth and gargle. Don't swallow.
  • Spit out the salt water and don't reuse it.

You'll need to gargle a few times per day to feel results.

Liquids

Prevent dehydration by drinking liquids. Some people may find relief from drinking warm liquids, while others may prefer cold liquids, which can help soothe inflamed tissue. Avoid hot liquids, which may worsen throat irritation.

Water is always a good choice, but here are two other options you can consider:

Warm lemon drink: Mix 1 teaspoon of lemon juice or apple cider vinegar, 1 very small sprinkle of cayenne pepper, 1 teaspoon of honey, and 1/4 teaspoon of freshly grated ginger (optional) into a cup of warm water.

The benefits of this folk remedy haven't been studied, but some say that capsaicin (a compound in cayenne) blocks nerves from sending pain signals, and the acid in lemon juice and vinegar makes it difficult for germs to survive. 

Note that cayenne and vinegar can worsen pain and cause burns or irritation in the mouth and throat if consumed solo or in excess. Make sure you properly dilute these ingredients with enough water.

Tea: A warm (not hot) cup of black tea may provide some relief from a sore throat. Black tea (Camellia sinensis) contains compounds called tannins. These compounds are astringent, meaning that they can help shrink swollen tissues.

Some people find that gargling with warm or cold, double-strength black tea several times per day is helpful.

Honey

Honey may help suppress a cough and ease discomfort by coating the throat, temporarily relieving irritation. Honey is also known to have antioxidant and antimicrobial properties, meaning that it can help fight sore-throat-causing bacteria.

A study published in the journal Pediatrics found that people who consumed honey before bed coughed less frequently and severely. They were also less likely to lose sleep due to coughing than those who didn't take honey.

Two teaspoons of honey before bed are recommended for adults and children over 1 year old. Add some to a warm beverage, or try it straight off the spoon.

Never give honey to a child younger than 1 year due to the risk of botulism—a type of rare and potentially fatal poisoning caused by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum.

Cold Foods and Warm Compresses

Some find relief for a sore throat by sucking on popsicles or eating ice cream. If you have swollen glands in your neck, using a warm compress, like a washcloth, may soothe the area. It may also speed healing along by promoting blood flow to the area.

Try soaking a washcloth in warm water and applying it to the area for 20 minutes at a time. Avoid using any kind of heating device directly on your skin to protect yourself from burns.

Humidifiers

Since dry air can contribute to a sore throat, a humidifier may help by adding moisture to the air. Both warm- and cool-mist humidifiers are effective.

However, for use around children, it's best to choose cool-mist to avoid hot water spills. You may also want to adjust your thermostat. For some people, a warmer room may lead to dryness, which can aggravate a dry, irritated throat.

Over-the-Counter (OTC) Therapies

You can use over-the-counter pain medications for a sore throat, such as Advil (ibuprofen) and Tylenol (acetaminophen). If you are on blood thinners like Coumadin (warfarin) or have liver problems, ulcer disease, or kidney disease, be sure to talk to your healthcare provider. They can help you decide which pain reliever is right for you.

An anesthetic (pain-numbing) throat spray, such as Chloraseptic, can be used by children over age 3 and adults. The product instructions say it should not be used for more than two days.

You might also use medicated or numbing cough drops and throat lozenges. For example, Cepacol Extra Strength lozenges can be used by adults and children ages 5 or 6 (depending on the flavor) and older. The lozenges have menthol and benzocaine to numb nerve receptors.

Cough suppressants, such as Robitussin, can be used by children age 6 and over and adults to reduce throat irritation.

If your sore throat is due to allergies and post-nasal drip, you can try over-the-counter antihistamines such as Benadryl or Claritin. These reduce your mucus production during an allergy attack.

For throat pain caused by acid reflux, try an antacid for short-term relief. You can find them in chewable forms, liquids, and tablets. Longer-term OTC medications include H2 blockers, such as Zantac and Pepcid, and proton pump inhibitors, such as Prilosec and Prevacid 24HR. These reduce stomach acid production.

Prescriptions

While the above can help ease a sore throat, you'll need more than that to get rid of it completely if the cause itself requires its own treatment. 

Depending on the cause, your healthcare provider may prescribe one of the following.

Antibiotics for Bacterial Infections

Strep throat and scarlet fever require prescription antibiotics to cure the infection and prevent potentially serious complications, including rheumatic fever and kidney damage.

A five- to 10-day course of penicillin, amoxicillin, or erythromycin is commonly prescribed. Fortunately, relief typically comes within 24 hours of treatment. 

It is important that you complete your course of antibiotics to fully treat the infection and decrease the chance of recurrent symptoms or resistant bacteria.

Antibiotics may also be prescribed for other types of bacterial infections that could be causing a sore throat. These drugs will not cure viral infections. However, they may be prescribed if your healthcare provider believes you are at risk of developing a bacterial infection on top of a known viral infection.

Corticosteroids for Adults With Severe Sore Throat

A single dose of oral corticosteroids may be used when an adult has a severe sore throat. This therapy is not considered for children.

Corticosteroids can be highly effective for relieving sore throat symptoms. One study showed that, compared to people who took antibiotics, people who took corticosteroids for sore throat pain were two times more likely to achieve complete relief within 24 hours.

Topical Anesthetic for Herpangina

Children may have herpangina due to the Coxsackie virus or echovirus, causing blister-like ulcers in the back of the throat. They rarely have severe pain. If they do, their practitioner may prescribe a topical anesthetic containing benzocaine or xylocaine.

This photo contains content that some people may find graphic or disturbing.

herpangina
Herpangina.

DermNet / CC BY-NC-ND

Allergy Medications

If you have a sore throat due to allergies, your healthcare provider may recommend prescription allergy medication or desensitization therapy to control allergy attacks.

Your healthcare provider may recommend a prescription-strength oral antihistamine such as Clarinex (desloratadine), which blocks the effects of histamine in the body. Or, they may recommend a nasal steroid such as Nasonex (mometasone furoate monohydrate), which reduces swelling and mucus in the nasal passages.

Desensitization therapy, also called allergen immunotherapy, works more like a vaccine. For this therapy, a healthcare provider injects tiny amounts of a particular allergen into your skin in gradually increasing doses, allowing your body to build up immunity to it.

Medications for Acid Reflux and GERD

For a sore throat caused by gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), a practitioner may manage your condition with H2 blockers that decrease acid production. They might also recommend proton pump inhibitors that lower the amount of acid your stomach makes.

Narcotic Pain Relievers After Throat Surgery

If your throat is sore because of a surgery, such as a tonsil removal, a thyroidectomy, or intubation, your healthcare provider may prescribe a narcotic pain reliever.

Because narcotic pain relievers can be habit-forming, they are typically only prescribed for short-term pain relief. Opioids, such as oxycodone and hydrocodone bitartrate, are commonly prescribed after a surgery.

Surgeries and Specialist-Driven Procedures

One possible complication of tonsillitis is an abscess, a collection of pus due to bacterial infection behind the tonsils. To treat it, your healthcare provider will usually drain it with a needle. Sometimes a doctor may need to make a small incision in the tonsil or tissue next to it to drain the pus in the abscess.

Tonsil removal may be recommended for recurrent strep throat infections or in the case of a severe abscess.

Tonsillectomy used to be a common surgery for children who had recurring sore throats. It is less common now, especially in adults, and only done when there is chronic tonsillitis. It is usually performed as an outpatient surgery and doesn't require an overnight stay in a hospital.

For a sore throat due to acid reflux, treatment for GERD might include surgery if your symptoms don't improve with medication or lifestyle changes.

Fundoplication is the most common surgery used to control acid reflux. It is a laparoscopic procedure that is minimally invasive. In this surgery, the top of the stomach is wrapped around the lower esophageal sphincter to make it tighter and prevent acid reflux.

Another type of minimally invasive surgery implants a LINX ring device containing magnetic beads where the stomach meets the esophagus. The magnetic attraction of the beads is just strong enough to allow food to go into the stomach but keeps the lower esophageal sphincter closed to prevent acid reflux.

Complementary Alternative Medicine (CAM)

Some traditional herbal remedies have been used for a sore throat. Keep in mind that although many of these home remedies have been used for generations, there is still a lack of solid research on their effectiveness and safety.

For this reason, you should always check with your healthcare provider before trying a new supplement. Your healthcare provider will ensure that the supplement is safe and that there is no risk of it interacting with any other medication you may be taking.

Sage

Used in Europe as an herbal remedy for a variety of throat conditions, the herb sage (Salvia officinalis) has a number of compounds, such as cineole, borneol, camphor, and thujone. It also has astringent properties that may help ease sore throat pain and reduce swelling and inflammation.

Herbalists sometimes suggest a sage tea or gargle made by steeping 1 teaspoon of dried sage or 1 tablespoon of fresh sage leaves in 1 cup of boiling water. Cover for 10 to 15 minutes and then strain out the leaves. Honey and lemon can be added if desired.

Although it may provide some relief in the short term, the safety of regular or long-term use of sage supplements isn't known. Pregnant or nursing women should avoid sage supplements.

Slippery Elm

Native to North America, slippery elm is an herb that has long been used in herbal medicine to soothe a sore throat, dry cough, or laryngitis. Slippery elm is also found in some throat lozenges. When mixed with water, the inner bark of the slippery elm tree forms a thick gel (mucilage) that coats and soothes the throat.

Herbalists typically recommend pouring 1 cup of boiling water over 1/2 teaspoon of powdered bark. Stir, allow it to steep, then gargle once it has cooled.

Licorice

Licorice root (Glycyrrhiza glabra) has a long history of use as an herbal remedy for a sore throat. According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), licorice root is sometimes used as a remedy for stomach ulcers, allergiescanker sores, and viral infections.

Licorice is a common ingredient in herbal teas, lozenges, and throat drops for a sore throat. It has a naturally sweet taste.

Licorice in large amounts may lead to high blood pressure, salt and water retention, and low potassium levels. It may also affect levels of the hormone cortisol. It should not be combined with diuretics, corticosteroids, or other medications that reduce potassium levels in the body.

People with heart disease, kidney disease, or high blood pressure should avoid licorice. Pregnant women should not take licorice.

Marshmallow

Marshmallow, an herb that grows in North America and Europe, has been used for centuries as a home remedy for a sore throat. Like slippery elm, marshmallow contains mucilage.

Herbalists recommend marshmallow root tea as a remedy for sore throats. It is usually made by adding 1 tablespoon of the dried root to a cup (8 ounces) of boiling water and steeping it, covered, for 30 to 90 minutes before straining. You can drink two to three cups per day.

Consult a healthcare provider before taking marshmallow if you have diabetes, as it may make your blood sugar too low, especially when combined with diabetes medication.

Marshmallow may also slow the absorption of other drugs taken at the same time. Marshmallow should not be taken by pregnant or nursing women.

Summary

Most sore throats clear up on their own within a week. Simple remedies like a salt water gargle and a little honey before bed can help ease throat pain.

Sore throats caused by bacterial infection, GERD, or another underlying condition may require prescription medications or other special treatments. Sore throat that becomes chronic or that causes painful abscesses may require surgery.

A Word From Verywell

Be sure to consult your healthcare provider if your sore throat is very painful, lasts more than a few days, or if you have other symptoms. If you have strep throat, you should start to feel better within just a day or two after starting antibiotics. If you still don't feel better after 48 hours have passed, give your healthcare provider a call.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What foods should I avoid when I have a sore throat?

    Anything that's hard to swallow can scrape against a tender throat on the way down, such as foods with a dry or crispy texture, like crackers or pretzels, or that are hard to break down fully by chewing, like meats.

    Stick to soup, ice cream, and other soft-textured foods that will slip past your sore throat easily until it feels better.

  • Will spicy foods make a sore throat worse?

    They can, but not always. Many spicy foods contain capsaicin, a compound in peppers that has been found to provide relief for certain types of pain. When used sparingly, hot sauce may actually help soothe a sore throat.

  • What can I take for a sore throat if I'm pregnant?

    You have a number of safe options, depending on the cause of your sore throat and your healthcare provider's advice, including:

    • Tylenol (acetaminophen): Don't take more than 3,000 milligrams (mg) in 24 hours.
    • Antihistamines: These might help if you have post-nasal drip due to a cold or allergy.
    • Benzocaine: Either a spray or lozenge containing this medication can numb a sore throat.
    • Chloraseptic: Also available as a spray or lozenge that can ease pain at the site.

    You should always check with your obstetrician before starting any medications during pregnancy.

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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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