When to Take a Child to the Doctor for a Sore Throat

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“My throat hurts!” is a common complaint. Most of the time, there’s nothing seriously wrong and, within a couple of days, your child is back to normal. Sometimes, though, a sore throat can be a sign of a more serious illness, such as strep throat. Learning to identify strep throat symptoms can be helpful, but it’s still a challenge to figure out when you need to take your child to the doctor and when you can use at-home sore throat remedies or over-the-counter medicines to ease your child’s discomfort.

Common Causes of Sore Throat

Bacterial and viral infections can cause a sore throat, as can allergies or exposure to dry air or pollution. Some of the most common causes of sore throat are:

  • Respiratory illnesses including the common cold and influenza (‘flu’), both of which are viral infections

  • Mononucleosis (‘mono’), also a viral infection

  • Strep throat, about 20 to 30% of throat infections in school-aged children are strep throat (caused by group A Streptococcus bacteria), according to the American Academy of Pediatrics

  • Tonsillitis

  • Allergies

Sore Throat Treatment at Home

When your child has a sore throat, your first priority is to make her comfortable. Some effective sore throat remedies include:

  • Drinking plenty of fluids. Some children prefer cold liquids; others prefer warm drinks, such as tea or chicken broth.

  • Sucking on an ice cube or popsicle; offer crushed ice and low-sugar popsicles.

  • Gargling with warm salt water. Dissolve one teaspoon salt in one cup of water. Show your child how to gargle and spit out the liquid. You can repeat salt water gargles every hour, if desired.

  • Sucking on hard candy or over-the-counter throat lozenges. Don’t give hard candy or lozenges to children under 4 years of age.

  • Running a humidifier. Dry air can further irritate a sore throat; humidifiers add moisture to the air.

You can also give your child acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) as often as every 4 to 6 hours to relieve pain. Follow the dosing instructions on the package or bottle; if you’re not sure how much to give, ask a pharmacist or your healthcare provider.

When to See a Doctor for Sore Throat

If your child’s sore throat doesn’t get better within a day of using home treatment, it’s time to see your healthcare provider. Your child might have a throat infection that could benefit from antibiotics.

If your child has strep throat symptoms—fever, bad breath, swollen glands, headache, and red or white spots on the inside of the throat—you don’t have to wait a day. Call your healthcare provider and ask for a same-day appointment. Your doctor will likely want to do a strep throat test. If so, your doctor can prescribe antibiotics, which will probably help your child feel better in a hurry.

If your child starts antibiotics but doesn’t feel better in a day or so, call your healthcare provider, particularly if your child seems to be getting sicker. You should also call your doctor if your child develops new symptoms, such as an earache, in addition to the sore throat. Sometimes, children develop a second infection while their body is fighting the first one.

Call 911 if your child:

Who to See for Sore Throat

Your child’s primary healthcare provider is the best person to see for sore throat. Pediatricians, family doctors, and nurse practitioners can all evaluate, diagnose and treat sore throat.

If your child’s healthcare provider thinks that allergies are the cause of your child’s sore throat, he may refer you to an allergist—a doctor who specializes in the treatment of allergies. If your child has abnormally large tonsils, the pediatrician may refer him to an otolaryngologist, or ENT (ear, nose, and throat) doctor.

When your child has a sore throat, use at-home remedies to help your child stay comfortable. Call your doctor if you notice signs of strep throat—your child may need antibiotics. Do not give sore throat medicine (besides acetaminophen, ibuprofen or throat lozenges) unless directed by a healthcare provider.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Aug 20
  1. Sore Throat. American Academy of Family Physicians. https://familydoctor.org/condition/sore-throat/?adfree=true
  2. When Is a Sore Throat a More Serious Infection? American Academy of Pediatrics. https://www.healthychildren.org/English/health-issues/conditions/ear-nose-throat/Pages/When-a-Sore-T...
  3. Sore Throat. MedlinePlus, U.S. National Library of Medicine. https://medlineplus.gov/sorethroat.html
  4. Sore Throat? Know When to Call the Doctor. American Osteopathic Association. http://www.osteopathic.org/osteopathic-health/about-your-health/health-conditions-library/general-he...
  5. Sore Throat. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/sore-throat/symptoms-causes/syc-20351635?p=1

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