I'm a Pharmacist, and This Is What I Take for a Sore Throat

As the weather gets cooler and the days get shorter, 'tis the season for a variety of sore-throat causing illnesses such as the common cold and the flu. While it's important to make sure your sore throat isn't a sign of something more serious, like a strep infection, it's equally important to treat your discomfort. We reached out to Tessa Spencer, PharmD, a specialist in functional medicine, for her tips on the best ways to soothe a sore throat. Read on for her recommendations—which might already be in your pantry!

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A sore throat is a symptom, not an illness.


Various conditions can cause a sore throat (also called pharyngitis). Simon Best, MD, told Johns Hopkins Medicine is an inflammation of the throat and actually a symptom of something else, not an illness itself.

"It is usually caused by viral and/or bacterial infections, such as the common cold and flu (both viral infections) or by infection with the Streptococcus bacterium (strep throat)," says Best. "Pharyngitis can also occur with mononucleosis (aka 'mono'), a viral infection." He notes that other causes for a sore throat include allergies, dry indoor air, muscle strain, and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).

"Viral infections usually don't require medication treatment, so I typically recommend a variety of over-the-counter treatments for adults with sore throat," explains Spencer. "You can still use over-the-counter symptom treatment for bacterial infections, but bacterial infections may require the need for antibiotics."

Consider these factors when choosing a sore throat medication.

Some of Spencer's favorite over-the-counter (OTC) treatments for a sore throat include popular pain relievers like ibuprofen (name brands: Advil or Motrin) or acetaminophen (Tylenol). When choosing between them, take your other symptoms into consideration. "If you have a fever on top of a sore throat, acetaminophen will be a better option, since it will help reduce a fever as well," says Spencer.

For throat pain due to strep throat, the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) suggests non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) like ibuprofen.

Another crucial factor in choosing an OTC medication is whether you have other health conditions that could potentially cause more harm than good. "Ibuprofen might not be the best option for people with certain health conditions, like kidney problems," says GoodRx, while Tylenol can be harmful to the liver: "If you have liver problems, Tylenol might not be safe for you."

These natural methods can relieve a sore throat.


Easing the pain of a sore throat doesn't necessarily require a trip to the pharmacy. Spencer also suggests drinking herbal tea (which offers other benefits, as well).

"One of my favorite herbal teas to recommend to people is the Traditional Medicinal Organic Throat Coat Herbal Tea," Spencer says. "It has a mix of many different herbals like eucalyptus, licorice root, spearmint, marshmallow root, and slippery elm bark to help soothe a sore throat." She recommends that people suffering from a sore throat sip one to three cups of the tea per day.

Other drug-free ways to help with a sore throat including gargling with salt water and adding honey to your tea, or just to water. Spencer explains that honey contains a combination of anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and antimicrobial properties. "I usually tell people to mix two tablespoons of honey with a warm glass or water and stir it well," she says, adding that this can be done several times a day. "However, I would recommend getting organic honey with no added sugar, since honey contains sugar."

A sore throat may be a sign of something more serious.


A sore throat can be incredibly painful, but when does it become worrisome? "Less common causes of sore throat might require more complex treatment," cautions WebMD. They recommend contacting your medical provider if you have a fever higher than 101 F, bloody saliva or phlegm, an earache or pain in your joints, and/or difficulty swallowing, breathing, or opening your mouth.

A lump in the neck may also be cause for concern, although the Moffitt Cancer Center points out that "neck lumps are often associated with upper respiratory infections, such as strep throat, and do not always indicate the presence of cancer. These lumps are actually lymph nodes that have become temporarily enlarged as they fight off infection," says the site.

An additional sign of a serious condition such as cancer may be a hoarse throat or difficulty swallowing that lasts two weeks or longer, the Cleveland Clinic says.