Viral Throat Infections

Last updated: September 6, 2021

Contributed by:
Richard Honaker M.D.
Primary Care Physician
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Viral throat infections: is that tickle a viral throat infection or something more serious? Check out our guide to determining the cause of your throat irritation


You notice a tickle or irritation in your throat. While it could be something as simple as irritation from smoke, pollution or allergens in the air, it is often the first sign of illness.


An Early Sign of Illness

A woman getting her throat examined

A sore throat can be painful and annoying, but it is also an indication that something is not right with your body. Often a sore throat is one of the first signs and symptoms of a viral or bacterial infection. While this symptom is often a painful one to swallow, it can be a catalyst to start some home remedies for recovery.

A painful throat is often the first sign of an oncoming illness, but that is not always the case. In some cases a sore throat can be a simple reaction to something in the environment. In others it can be a warning sign of something more serious. A UK case study has found that persistent sore throat can be an early warning sign of cancer of the larynx.


Signs and Symptoms of a Throat Infection


The signs and symptoms present for a throat infection will vary with the type of infection present. In general, you are likely to see the following symptoms:


  • Sore and possible swollen glands in the neck and jaw
  • Painful or scratchy sensation in the back of the throat
  • Pain in the throat that intensifies with swallowing or talking
  • A hoarse or muffled voice
  • If you have tonsils, they may be red or have white spots or pus


Strep vs. Sore Throat

image of an open mouth getting examined

There are two primary types of throat infections: viral and bacterial. A viral infection is often a cold or a flu where a sore throat is one of a number of symptoms. A virus can enter the body and cause the pharynx (the medical term for throat) to become inflamed. While the discomfort can range from mild discomfort to severe pain.

A sore throat that comes on suddenly is called acute pharyngitis and is often caused by a bacteria or virus entering the body. Chronic pharyngitis occurs when a sinus, respiratory or mouth infection enters the throat and causes long term pain.

The sudden onset of a sore throat is only one of a handful of symptoms associated with the average cold or flu virus. It is important to recognize the signs of a viral infection as this type of infection does not require antibiotics and in most cases a trip to the doctor’s office.


When a sore throat is the result of a viral infection, it will usually feel better within a few days. When the cause of your throat inflammation is bacterial, the pain will last much longer.


Worried you may have a bacterial throat infection? Learn more about bacterial throat infections here. 

Is it Possible to Self Diagnose?

Research has pointed to two important questions to determine whether your symptoms are pointing towards a bacterial or viral infection. By learning the signs of viral versus bacterial infection, many unnecessary trips to the doctor’s office can be avoided.

mother looking at daughter's throat

The research indicates that the two key questions that patients can ask themselves before hitting the doctor’s office are:


  • Do you have a cough?
  • Have you had a fever in the last 24 hours?


These two questions along with a study of the prevalence of strep throat in the area was able to rule out strep throat in cases almost as well as a lab did. The 2013 study tested nearly 70,000 individuals in the aim to develop an app to self-diagnose strep throat.


In the study 90 percent of patients shown to be “low-risk” based on the test questions also had negative clinical test results.


Signs of Cold and Flu

woman wiping her nose

One of the reasons that the first question asked on the questionnaire is the fact that a cough is common with a cold or flu (influenza) associated with a viral infection, but not a bacterial infection like strep throat.


Other common cold and flu symptoms:


  • Fever
  • Runny nose
  • Sneezing
  • Body Aches
  • Headache
  • Nausea or vomiting


The common cold or flu virus is not the only viral infections that can cause a sore throat. This symptom is also associated with:


  • Croup (this common childhood illness is characterized by a distinctive barking cough)
  • Mononucleosis (mono)
  • Measles
  • Chickenpox

The Importance of Antibiotics

image of bottles of pills

Antibiotics are an important tool in battling bacterial infections but completely unnecessary for viral infections. It is important for people to learn the difference between the two. According to a 2016 Center for Disease Control (CDC) study, 1 in 3 prescriptions written in the United States are unnecessary. This adds up to an estimated 47 million unnecessary prescriptions written each year.


Viral throat infections are among the 44 percent of outpatient prescriptions written to treat acute respiratory infections. It is believed that 30 percent are unnecessary.


It’s not only the chance of allergic reactions or diarrhea that comes with the needless use of antibiotics that is cause for alarm, but also the increased risk of a build-up of antibiotic resistance.


What is Antibiotic Resistance?

person looking into a microscope

According to the World Health Organization, (WHO) antibiotic resistance is one of the leading concerns for global health. Antibiotic resistance can happen to anyone, regardless of age, but misuse of antibiotics is increasing this growing concern.

Antibiotics are used to treat bacterial infections. Antibiotic resistance occurs when bacteria changes in response to these medications. Antibiotic resistance does not occur in people or animals, but in the bacteria itself. It gains the ability to resist these medications and the infections from these bacteria can be harder to treat.

Natural Ways to Encourage Healing


While a viral throat infection does not usually require medical intervention to heal, it can be quite uncomfortable. Fortunately, there are several ways to encourage healing and provide relief for the discomfort from home.

girl licking a popsicle

  • Use a mild pain reliever to help with the discomfort and pain
  • Drink warm soothing beverages such as broth, tea or hot water and lemon
  • Indulge in cold treats such as popsicles to soothe your throat
  • Rest your body and your voice
  • Gargle with a saltwater mix of ⅛ teaspoon per four ounces of water and spit
  • Sit in a steamy shower or use a humidifier
  • Keep the air clear of irritants such as cigarette smoke or chemical cleaners
  • Lozenges are a good options for those four and older (to reduce the risk of choking)


When treating a viral throat infection it is important to exercise caution when giving aspirin to children or teenagers. Aspirin has been linked to Reye’s syndrome, which is a rare but potentially life threatening condition. For this reason, Aspirin should never be given to children or teenagers recovering from chicken pox or flu-like symptoms.  

Prevention of Throat Infections

hands getting washed

Viral throat infections, much like any virus, can be prevented by practicing good hygiene and self-care including:


  • Wash your hands with soap and water often
  • Only use alcohol-based sanitizers if no soap and water is available
  • Avoid touching your face, especially your eyes, nose and mouth
  • Take a multivitamin daily
  • Get a good amount of sleep each night
  • Each a diet rich in colorful fruits and vegetables


When to Speak to a Doctor


While many viral throat infections can clear up without medical intervention, this is not always the case. There are symptoms that indicate you need to see a doctor.

a group of doctors with a female doctor in front

In children it is important to seek medical attention if:


  • Your child is having difficulty breathing
  • Your child is having difficulty swallowing
  • Your child is drooling (this can indicate an inability to swallow)


In adults it is important to seek medical attention if:


  • You are experiencing recurring sore throats
  • It is difficult to open your mouth
  • You have a lump in your neck
  • It is difficult to breathe
  • Your fever is higher than 101 F (38.3 C)
  • There is blood in your saliva or phlegm
  • Your voice is hoarse for two weeks or more
  • You have joint pain, an ear ache or a rash


A New Approach to Your Health

Aisan man in a doctor's coat

Put the power of a physician in your pocket with the Your Doctors Online app. Just a touch of a button can connect you with a real doctor ready to answer your medical questions day or night. So snap a picture of your throat and upload it for an immediate closer look before wasting your time at the doctor’s office. Save your time and protect your health in one simple step.

So what do you have to lose? Stop wasting your time in waiting rooms and connect with one of our knowledgeable doctors today.

Disclaimer: This article provides general information and is not intended to diagnose, treat or cure any disease or medical condition. If you require specific advice, please consult one of our medical professionals through the app. However, in case of an emergency, please call 911.

Disclaimer: This article provides general information and is not intended to diagnose, treat or cure any disease or medical condition. If you require specific advice, please consult one of our medical professionals through the app. However, in case of an emergency, please call 911.

About Richard Honaker M.D.

Dr. Richard Honaker has over 40 years of experience as a primary care physician specializing in several different areas of medicine. He is able to provide expert case review and analysis for insurance and workers compensation cases as well as providing online medical consultations as the Chief Medical Advisor for Your Doctors Online.

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