A sore throat is a pretty familiar malady that most people will experience many times during their lives. Having a sore throat can be annoying and unpleasant as an adult, but it can be fairly distressing for young children who aren’t used to the sensations. While a sore throat can sometimes be indicative of a bigger problem, for the most part it’s a minor concern that can be treated in a number of different ways.
Facts About Sore Throats
A sore throat is obviously a very common condition, yet only a fraction of people seek medical attention when they get one (largely because they tend to be mild inconveniences). And even though a sore throat is a symptom itself, not all sore throats present in the same way. People may experience throat pain or itchiness that may worsen with talking, but it may also be accompanied by difficulty swallowing, swollen glands in the neck, problems with the tonsils, or hoarseness.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children with sore throats account for more than seven million visits to a doctor’s office every year; this naturally tends to result in both missed school days for the kids and missed work time for parents. It is estimated that a full 85-95% of child’s sore throats are caused by a viral infection, particularly in children five years old and younger. In most cases, however, medical treatment is not needed as the sore throat will most likely go away on its own.
What Causes a Sore Throat?
One of the tricky parts about getting a sore throat is that just having the symptom doesn’t help you determine the cause. Though, as noted earlier, viruses are by far the most common underlying cause of a sore throat, there are many other possible causes. Doctors must rely on other symptoms and whether or not the child has a high temperature in making a diagnosis. Below are some of the most common causes:
- Common Cold: The common cold can be caused by any one of over 200 strains of viral infection like a rhinovirus. In many cases, a sore throat is the very first symptom of the onset of a cold, but it eventually can also cause coughing, runny nose, and other symptoms related to a sore throat. Because it is transmitted through aerosolized particles, it is easy for children to pass it to one another while at school or while playing.
- Strep Throat: Bacterial infections are much less likely than viral infections to lead to a sore throat, but if a sore throat is due to a bacterial infection, it will most likely be by the bacteria known as group A streptococcus. Strep is similarly contagious, but it can be quickly diagnosed with a rapid strep test and cured in short order by a round of antibiotics.
- Pharyngitis: Pharyngitis is the medical term used to describe an inflammation of the back of the throat. Usually caused by a viral infection, it can also be a symptom of strep or a variety of other illnesses. This inflammation is typically painful (a sore throat) and may also cause a fever.
- Tonsillitis: This condition is actually a subtype of pharyngitis that specifically targets the tonsils, a pair of organs that are part of the lymphatic system. The inflammation and swelling of the tonsils can lead to sore throat, fever, or trouble swallowing.
- Dehydration: Sometimes a sore throat has more innocuous causes such as dehydration or breathing extremely dry air for an extended period of time. Without sufficient moisture in the back of the throat, the tissue can quickly become dry, scratchy, and sore for as long as the lack of moisture continues.
- Mono: Known officially as infectious mononucleosis, mono is an infection caused by the Epstein-Barr virus. This condition is most common in children or young adults, and it can lead to fever, fatigue, enlarged lymph nodes, and a sore throat; it may also cause other flu-like symptoms in young children.
- Post-Nasal Drip: Also known as upper airway cough syndrome (UACS), post-nasal drip is typically caused by allergic rhinitis, a condition characterized by exposure to certain environmental allergens. When an allergen is detected, the nasal mucosa produces excessive levels of mucus that drips down the back of the throat; the constant dripping of mucosal fluid eventually causes a sore throat.
- Ingestion of a Toxic Substance: Unfortunately, sometimes very young children accidentally ingest a harmful or toxic substance like an acid or alkali. In such cases, a sore throat is often the first symptom of a problem since the substance may burn the mouth or throat as it travels down the esophagus.
Sore Throat Treatment Options
Depending on the cause of the sore throat, treatment may mean simply managing the child’s discomfort or treating the underlying condition. For most cases, as in viral infections, the body’s immune system needs time to produce the antibodies necessary to fight off the virus. One of the best ways to help them feel better is through pushing fluids; cold drinks, popsicles, jello, or ice cream can all help ease any soreness. Conversely, you’ll want to avoid having the kids eat or drink anything spicy, salty, or acidic; bland foods are preferable. You can also have them suck on throat lozenges or hard candy to soothe the pain.
If the pain is particularly sharp or bothersome, over-the-counter pain medication like acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil) can make a significant difference, especially when paired with sufficient amounts of cold liquid. The same idea applies if the child also has the kind of fever that may accompany a throat infection. If the infection is bacterial, a doctor will need to diagnose and then prescribe appropriate antibiotics; while this medication won’t ease the child’s symptoms, it will cure the infection relatively quickly.
How to Prevent a Sore Throat
Children are naturally curious and often like to touch (and lick) both familiar and unfamiliar objects; additionally, they are often in close quarters with other children at school or when playing together. For both of these reasons, children are especially susceptible to picking up an infection from someone else. This means that having a sore throat (and the illnesses that go with them) is likely inevitable at some point, but it also means that preventative measures are an important part of decreasing the likelihood of actually getting a sore throat.
As with virtually any contagious disease, the various causes of a sore throat are likely to make a child contagious before any symptoms are even detected. This is why modeling hygienic behavior is a major part of helping to prevent illness: regular hand washing, covering one’s mouth when coughing or sneezing, and not sharing food utensils or drinking cups are all easy tips that children can be taught.
When to See a Doctor
Having a sore throat is decidedly unpleasant for children, but the good news is that it is almost always a minor condition that needn’t worry parents. If a child has severe throat pain, a high fever, signs of dehydration, trouble breathing, or any other severe symptoms, you should contact a physician for more health information and medical advice. You should also immediately call 911 or poison control if you suspect your child’s sore throat is a result of ingesting a toxic substance.
TrustCare Kids offers both pediatric primary care and urgent care so that you always have a place to go if your child seems ill. If your child has an unexplainable sore throat and you would like him or her to be seen by a medical professional, you can walk-in to TrustCare Kids to receive urgent care. TrustCare Kids also offers primary care via appointment. Our dedicated staff is eager to help you and your little one get the best healthcare possible.
This post has been medically reviewed by Dr. Catherine Phillippi, pediatrician at TrustCare Kids. She earned her medical degree from the University of Mississippi School of Medicine in 1999 and completed her pediatric training at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences/Arkansas Children’s Hospital.