How to Tell When a Sore Throat Is Something Serious

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Sore throats are pretty common and usually nothing to worry about. Sometimes, though, they can point to something pretty serious. I, for instance, had a very dramatic tonsillectomy at the big age of 17 after a year of near-endless sore throats—no amount of at-home remedies could have fixed what ended up requiring two separate hospital stays and procedures to rectify. So, how do you know when a sore throat has gone on too long? Or when it’s serious?

What is a normal sore throat like?

We’re all familiar with how a sore throat feels: It’s scratchy, irritated, and painful, and the feeling is worse when you swallow. According to Mayo Clinic, the most common cause of this problem is a viral infection like a cold or the flu, but the good news is that these types of sore throats resolve on their own.

Strep throat is less common and is caused by bacteria. It requires antibiotic treatment to prevent any kind of complications. The other less common causes of sore throats may require even more complex treatment than that. The trouble is, of course, that it can be hard to know if yours is one of those cold-related ones that will resolve in a few days on its own or needs more serious intervention, and you probably don’t want to go to the walk-in clinic every time you get a scratchy feeling, since the odds are you’ll be told you have a viral infection and sent on your way.

When to see a doctor

Pain, sore or swollen glands in your neck or jaw, red tonsils, and a muffled voice on their own are not reasons to head to urgent care, but these are:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Unusual drooling (which can indicate an inability to swallow, especially in kids)
  • A sore throat lasting longer than a week
  • Difficulty opening your mouth
  • Joint pain
  • Earache
  • Rash
  • Fever above 101 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Blood in your saliva or phlegm
  • Frequently recurring sore throats
  • A lump in your neck
  • Hoarseness that lasts more than two weeks
  • Facial or neck swelling

The sore throat could be caused by the common cold, the flu, allergies, or even a little physical trauma. It could also be caused by mono, measles, chicken pox, COVID-19, or croup, not to mention more serious things like HIV or tumors. If you have any of the symptoms listed above, go get checked out.

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How long does a sore throat last?

Fevers and joint pain will be easy to identify if they happen, but sore throats are so common that you might not start counting the days you’ve had it when you get one. You really should, since the duration of a sore throat can help you (well, your doctor) figure out what’s causing it.

Per Healthline, most sore throats resolve on their own within three to 10 days, but once you hit that one-week mark, really pay attention to your other symptoms. If it persists longer than that, go see your doctor.

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