Diseases & Conditions
Viral Sore Throat
What is viral sore throat?
A viral sore throat is an infection of the throat caused by a virus. The infection often creates a white or gray coating on the tonsils.
How does it occur?
A viral sore throat occurs when a virus attacks the throat area. There are many different viruses that can cause the sore throat including:
adenovirus (a virus that also causes lung and ear infections)
coxsackievirus (a virus that causes a throat infection called herpangina)
infectious mononucleosis virus.
What are the symptoms?
The symptoms will vary slightly depending on which type of virus you have.
The symptoms of flu virus infections can include:
white coating, occasionally.
The symptoms of adenovirus infection can include:
severe throat pain
cold symptoms (runny nose, cough)
white, pimplelike nodes on the mucous membrane of the tonsils and/or throat
infection lasts about one week
an ear infection occasionally
a brief rash sometimes.
The symptoms of herpangina can include:
pain in stomach, neck, arms, and legs
sores on throat, on tongue, or roof of mouth that heal quickly.
The symptoms of infectious mononucleosis can include:
extreme, prolonged fatigue lasting one or more weeks
white coating on the tonsils and throat
red spots on the roof of the mouth
large swollen glands in the neck
Call your doctor if you have a severe sore throat for more than 48 hours; have fever, chills, or sweats; have painful swollen neck glands (lymph nodes); are unable to swallow; or have pus (white spots) on your tonsils.
How is it diagnosed?
It is often difficult to tell whether a sore throat is caused by a virus or by strep bacteria. In general, the main symptom of strep throat is a severe sore throat with difficulty swallowing. Other possible symptoms of strep are fever, swollen lymph nodes in the neck, white spots on the tonsils, and sometimes headache. On the other hand, sneezing, a runny nose, and nasal congestion are common symptoms of infections by a virus, including those that cause viral sore throats.
To diagnose a viral sore throat, the doctor will review your symptoms and examine you. He or she may also take a throat swab to check for strep throat. Many offices and clinics now have very accurate rapid throat swab tests that allow identification of strep within a few minutes or a few hours.
If the doctor suspects mononucleosis, a Monospot slide test may also be done.
How is it treated?
The treatment is similar to that of the common cold. Your doctor will usually not prescribe antibiotics. You can use analgesics to relieve minor pain. The treatment consists of gargling with warm water. Some people feel more relief with warm, salty water. Avoid contact with others until the symptoms are gone. Get plenty of bed rest or otherwise limit activity until the fever is gone.
Mononucleosis is an illness that can affect the whole body. There is no specific treatment for it.
How long will the effects last?
The effects will last as long as the virus affects the body. Most viral infections last from several days to two weeks. Mononucleosis may last longer.
How can I take care of myself?
To help take care of yourself, take the full course of treatment your doctor prescribes.
For a sore throat:
Drink chicken soup, cold drinks, and other clear, nutritious liquids. If it is painful to eat, don't eat solid food. When you can eat, eat nutritious foods.
Do not smoke cigarettes or breathe secondhand smoke.
Gargle with warm salt water (1/2 teaspoon salt per cup of water).
Suck on hard lozenges or candy.
Take acetaminophen (for example, Tylenol), ibuprofen (such as Motrin), or naproxen (for example, Aleve).
Limit activities, especially those requiring talking.
Use a vaporizer that provides cool moisture.
If you have a fever:
Ask your doctor if you can take aspirin or acetaminophen to control your fever. Anyone under age 21 with a viral illness should not take aspirin because of the increased risk of Reye's syndrome.
If you have diarrhea:
Drink clear liquids such as water, juice, tea, and bouillon frequently during the day.
Reduce your normal activities until the diarrhea has stopped.
If you are nauseated, suck on ice chips.
When you feel better, eat cooked cereal, rice, apple sauce, baked potato, and toast. You may also have carbonated drinks.
Two or three days later, return to normal eating. Avoid fruit, alcohol, milk products, and highly seasoned and spicy foods for several more days.
What can be done to help prevent spread of viral sore throat?
If you've been diagnosed with viral sore throat:
Avoid close contact with others for about 24 to 48 hours. However, with many viruses, you are most infectious before symptoms start.
Use tissues when coughing or sneezing.
Wash your hands before touching food or food-related items such as dishes, glasses, silverware, or napkins.
Wash your hands after coughing, sneezing, or blowing your nose.
Be careful not to let your nose or mouth touch public telephones or drinking faucets.
Use paper cups and paper towels in bathrooms instead of common drinking cups or shared hand towels.
Don't share food or eating utensils with others.