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Patient education: Sore throat in children (The Basics)

Patient education: Sore throat in children (The Basics)

What causes a sore throat? — Sore throat is a common problem in children.

Sore throat is usually caused by an infection. Two types of germs can cause it: viruses and bacteria.

Children who have a sore throat caused by a virus do not usually need to see a doctor or nurse. But if you think that your child might have coronavirus disease 2019 ("COVID-19"), ask their doctor or nurse if they should be tested.

Children who have a sore throat caused by bacteria might need to see a doctor or nurse. They might have a type of bacterial infection called "strep throat."

How can I tell if my child's sore throat is caused by a virus or strep throat? — It is hard to tell the difference. But there are some clues to look for (figure 1). With strep throat, white patches can appear on the tonsils (in the back of the throat). You might also see red spots on the roof of the mouth or a swollen uvula.

People who have a sore throat caused by a virus usually have other symptoms, too. These can include:

Runny nose

Stuffed-up chest

Itchy or red eyes

Cough

Raspy (hoarse) voice

Pain in the roof of the mouth

People who have strep throat do not usually have a cough, runny nose, or itchy or red eyes. Sometimes, they might have headache, vomiting (but no diarrhea), and belly pain along with a sore throat.

Your child's doctor can do a test to check for the bacteria that cause strep throat.

Does my child need antibiotics? — If the sore throat is caused by a virus, your child does not need antibiotics. Unless your child has strep throat, antibiotics will not help.

What can I do to help my child feel better? — There are several ways to help relieve a sore throat:

Soothing foods and drinks – Give your child things that are easy to swallow, like tea or soup, or popsicles to suck on. Your child might not feel like eating or drinking, but it's important that they get enough liquids. Offer different warm and cold drinks for your child to try.

MedicinesAcetaminophen (sample brand name: Tylenol) or ibuprofen (sample brand names: Advil, Motrin) can help with throat pain. The correct dose depends on your child's weight, so ask your child's doctor how much to give.

Do not give aspirin or medicines that contain aspirin to children younger than 18 years. In children, aspirin can cause a serious problem called Reye syndrome. Do not give children throat sprays or cough drops, either. Throat sprays and cough drops contain medicine, but they are no better at relieving throat pain than hard candies. Plus, in some cases, they can cause an allergic reaction or other side effects.

Add moisture to the air – You can use a cool mist humidifier to keep the air from getting too dry. If you don't have a humidifier, you can sit with your child in a closed bathroom with a warm shower running a few times a day.

Avoid smoke – Do not smoke around your child or let others smoke near them. Being around smoke can irritate the throat. Plus, it's dangerous to the child's health.

Other treatments – For children who are older than 4 to 5 years, sucking on hard candies or a lollipop might help. For children older than 6 to 8 years, gargling with warm salt water might help.

When can my child go back to school? — If your child's sore throat is caused by a virus, they should be able to go back to school as soon as they feel better. If your child has a fever, they should stay home for at least 24 hours after the fever has gone away.

When should I call the doctor? — Call for an ambulance (in the US and Canada, call 9-1-1) or take your child to the emergency department if your child:

Has trouble breathing or swallowing

Is drooling much more than usual

Has a stiff or swollen neck

Call the doctor or nurse if your child has a sore throat and:

Has a fever of at least 101°F (38.4°C) without other symptoms of a virus

Has a fever that lasts for more than 3 days

Is not getting enough to eat or drink

Can't open their mouth all of the way

You think that your child has strep throat or was in close contact with someone else who had strep throat

Has a fever and a red rash like sandpaper on their body

Got antibiotics but still has symptoms after finishing them

How can I keep my child from getting a sore throat again? — Wash your child's hands often with soap and water. It is one of the best ways to prevent the spread of infection. You can use an alcohol rub instead, but make sure that the hand rub gets everywhere on your child's hands.

Teach your child about other ways to avoid spreading germs, such as not touching their face after being around a sick person.

More on this topic

Patient education: Strep throat in children (The Basics)
Patient education: Cough, runny nose, and the common cold (The Basics)
Patient education: Giving your child over-the-counter medicines (The Basics)

Patient education: Sore throat in children (Beyond the Basics)
Patient education: The common cold in children (Beyond the Basics)

This topic retrieved from UpToDate on: Jun 02, 2024.
Disclaimer: This generalized information is a limited summary of diagnosis, treatment, and/or medication information. It is not meant to be comprehensive and should be used as a tool to help the user understand and/or assess potential diagnostic and treatment options. It does NOT include all information about conditions, treatments, medications, side effects, or risks that may apply to a specific patient. It is not intended to be medical advice or a substitute for the medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment of a health care provider based on the health care provider's examination and assessment of a patient's specific and unique circumstances. Patients must speak with a health care provider for complete information about their health, medical questions, and treatment options, including any risks or benefits regarding use of medications. This information does not endorse any treatments or medications as safe, effective, or approved for treating a specific patient. UpToDate, Inc. and its affiliates disclaim any warranty or liability relating to this information or the use thereof. The use of this information is governed by the Terms of Use, available at https://www.wolterskluwer.com/en/know/clinical-effectiveness-terms. 2024© UpToDate, Inc. and its affiliates and/or licensors. All rights reserved.
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