Sore throat in children: causes, symptoms, and treatment
Sore throats come in all shapes and sizes.
From the little ones that give your child a tickle to the ones that may leave them speechless, sore throats can interfere with your child’s life. Find out what causes a sore throat, symptoms of a sore throat, and how to treat it.
What causes a sore throat in children?
Sore throats (pharyngitis) are very common and usually nothing to worry about 1. They will normally improve on their own within a week. Sore throats are not an illness in themselves, but a symptom of something else, such as a viral or a bacterial infection.
The most common infectious cause of a sore throat is a viral infection, such as a cold or flu2.
Other infectious causes of a sore throat include:
● glandular fever
● strep throat
● hand, foot, and mouth disease
A sore throat that is caused by an infection will usually come along with other symptoms too, such as a cough, runny nose, difficulty swallowing, fever, or mouth ulcers.
If your child has an occasional mild sore throat and no other symptoms, it may have a non-infectious cause such as2,3:
● smoke inhalation
● air pollution
● dry air during winter
● side-effects of asthma preventer inhalers or chemotherapy
Sore throat symptoms in children
Pain in the throat is often a sign of inflammation. The symptoms that come along with a sore throat will depend on what’s causing it.
Cold and flu
The viruses that cause cold and flu can cause a sore throat and symptoms such as a runny and blocked nose, cough, lethargy, and fever.
Glandular fever Glandular fever is a viral infection which mostly affects teenagers but can also affect children. It often causes a very high fever, a severe sore throat, and extreme tiredness4.
Hand foot and mouth disease
This condition is caused by a virus and often spreads amongst young children. When your child catches hand, foot, and mouth disease, they may first complain of a sore throat or mouth pain, not wanting to eat, and they may have a fever5. Soon, they may develop a rash (a mix of small red bumps and blisters) on their hands, feet, and around their mouth (hence the name!). Blisters inside the mouth and throat can make it very difficult to swallow. Hand, foot, and mouth disease usually resolves on its own within 7 to 10 days.
Strep throat is a common bacterial infection that affects up to 30% of school-aged children with a sore throat3. It usually occurs in the winter and develops very suddenly. In addition to a sore throat, symptoms can include fever, headache, nausea, white patches of pus in the throat, and swollen glands. Look out for fussy behaviour and decreased appetite in younger children. Strep throat is usually treated with antibiotics3.
How to treat a sore throat in children
Most sore throats are caused by a virus and are self-limiting. This means they will usually get better on their own. You can help your child cope with discomfort in the following ways1,4:
● get rest and sleep
● drink plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration
● eat cool, soft foods
● suck on an ice lolly
● use paracetamol or ibuprofen* to relieve the pain and discomfort of a sore throat or fever If the cause of your child’s sore throat is bacterial (such as strep throat)3, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics and take a swab of your child’s throat to find out which bacteria is causing it.
How to prevent illnesses that cause a sore throat
Preventing a sore throat is all about taking steps to prevent the spread of infections that cause them. A great way to reduce the chances of catching an infection that can cause a sore throat is to teach your child how to wash their hands correctly3. Hands should be rubbed with water for 15-30 seconds at minimum. Show your child how to thoroughly clean under their nails and between their fingers. Ask your child to wash their hands after coughing, blowing their nose, or sneezing. Try to avoid touching or allowing your child to touch the eyes, nose or mouth of someone who is sick to help limit the spread of infection3.
When to call a doctor
Sometimes, a sore throat can indicate something more serious. Take your child to see the doctor if he or she1,3:
● gets sore throats frequently
● has a sore throat that doesn't improve after a week
● has a sore throat that is worrying you
● has a sore throat and a very high temperature, or feels shivery
● has a weakened immune system – for example, if your child is on chemotherapy or has diabetes
See your doctor or emergency department immediately if your child has:
● difficulty swallowing
● difficulty breathing
● swollen neck
● severe tummy pain
● a high-pitched sound as they breathe
● symptoms are severe or getting worse
*Nurofen for Children Orange/Strawberry: Singles / Cold, Pain and Fever 100g/5ml Oral suspension / Baby Oral suspension /3 months to 9 years 100mg/5ml Oral suspension / 3 months to 12 years Oral suspension. Contains ibuprofen, for children over 3 months (weighing more than 5kg) to 12 years. For pain relief. Nurofen for children 100 mg, chewable capsules, soft. For fever and pain relief in children aged 7 to 12 years. Contains Ibuprofen. Always read the label. Use only as directed.
If symptoms persist consult your healthcare professional. All information presented on these web pages is not meant to diagnose or prescribe.
For further advice please speak to your doctor or pharmacist.
1. NHS-UK. Sore throat. nhs.uk Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/sore-throat/. (Accessed: 15th October 2018)
2. Renner, B., Mueller, C. A. & Shephard, A. Environmental and non-infectious factors in the aetiology of pharyngitis (sore throat). Inflamm. Res. 61, 1041–1052 (2012).
3. Wald, E. R. Patient education: Sore throat in children (Beyond the Basics). in UpToDate (eds. Edwards, M. S. & Torchia, M. M.) (UpToDate, 2018).
4. NHS-UK. Glandular fever. nhs.uk Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/glandular-fever/. (Accessed: 15th October 2018)
5. Guerra, A. M. & Waseem, M. Hand Foot And Mouth Disease. in StatPearls (StatPearls Publishing, 2018).