What causes a sore throat in children?

Sore throats (pharyngitis) are very common. 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 bacterial infection.

The most common cause of a sore throat is a viral infection, such as a cold or flu.

A sore throat that is caused by an infection will usually come with other symptoms, such as a cough, runny nose, fever, or headache.

If your child has an occasional mild sore throat and no other symptoms, it may have a non-infectious cause such as:

  • allergies
  • smoke inhalation
  • air pollution
  • side-effects of some medications.

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.

How to relieve 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 ways:

  • get rest and sleep
  • drink plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration
  • eat cool, soft foods
  • if old enough, suck on a lozenge
  • use paracetamol or ibuprofen to relieve the pain and discomfort of a sore throat or fever.

If you are unsure about the cause and appropriate treatment of your child’s sore throat seek advice from your doctor.

How to prevent a sore throat caused by cold and flu infections

Sore throats can be prevented by taking steps to prevent the spread of the infections that cause them. An important way to help slow the spread of cold and flu infections is good hygiene, which starts with teaching your child how to wash their hands correctly. Hands should be washed with soap and water and dried thoroughly. 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. Also teach your child how to cover their coughs and sneezes and to 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 infection. It's also important to keep your child at home and away from others when they are feeling unwell.

When to call a doctor

These days this is now your first point of call. If your child is experiencing a sore throat you should see a doctor and practice social distancing and good hygiene practices. Phone ahead to check with your if your child is required to wear a mask on their way to and while they are waiting for their appointment. Then check in with your doctor again if your child:

  • has sore throat symptoms that last for longer 2 days
  • is drinking poorly for longer than 1 day
  • is unwell or has other symptoms described below 
  • has enlarging tender lumps in the neck 
  • has great difficulty swallowing 
  • has a new skin rash or bruising 
  • has increased snoring when asleep 

You need to go to hospital urgently if your child has:

  • Excessive or new drooling (dribbling) 
  • Difficulty breathing 
  • Stopping breathing when asleep 
  • Extreme tiredness or drowsiness 
  • Possibly choked on a foreign object or swallowed a toxic substance 
  • Stopped drinking and is having fewer than half the usual amount or volume of urine or wet nappies