What causes a sore throat?

What causes a sore throat?

What causes a sore throat

As mentioned, there are several sore throat causes. Most of the time a sore throat is just one symptom of a minor viral infection, such as the cold or flu virus - caused by the rhinovirus, coronavirus and para-influenza viruses, these are believed to be responsible for a quarter of all sore throats.1,2 Other common causes include bacterial infections, for example, around 10% of sore throats in adults and nearly a third in children are thought be the result of Strep throat, which is caused by the bacterium Streptococcus pyogenes. For fast and effective relief, Difflam™ Spray and Sore Throat Rinse can be used to treat a wide variety of mouth and throat conditions. 

Less common sore throat causes

Less common causes, perhaps accounting for less than 5% of all cases, include:

  • Advenoirus - which can also cause conjunctivitis (an infection in the eye)
  • Herpes simplex virus type 1 - which usually causes cold sores
  • Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) - which can cause glandular fever

In around a third of cases, no specific cause for the sore throat can be found.1

Non-infectious causes of a sore throat

Although more rare, there are also non-infectious causes of a sore throat such as irritation from cigarette smoke or alcohol; gastro-oesophageal reflux disease; mould, dust or pollen allergies; poor air quality; air pollution; and even muscle strain – from those times when you are shouting a little loudly for a little too long at a football match or music concert! Usually, these manifest as a sore throat when swallowing, although sometimes symptoms can be felt continually.

Can bacteria cause sore throats?

Man with a sore throat sneezing

Other symptoms experienced alongside the sore throat can often help determine the cause. If there are few additional problems present, then is it likely to pass fairly quickly. Other signs like swollen tonsils or enlarged glands can sometimes indicate tonsillitis. Alternatively, a high temperature (or fever), aching muscles, a cough or a sore throat and headache - all of which are associated with common infectious conditions - usually suggest bacterial or viral origins.

The bacterium or virus that causes a sore throat is normally caught from someone else who is already infected. For example, the common cold is transmitted through tiny droplets of fluid that contain the virus, launched into the air when an infected person coughs, sneezes or speaks. By breathing in these droplets or touching a contaminated surface and then touching the eyes, nose or mouth, a person may become infected themselves.


  1. NHS Choices, Sore Throat. Link http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/Sore-throat/Pages/Introduction.aspx [Accessed November 2015]
  2. Patient.co.uk, Sore Throat. Available at:http://www.patient.co.uk/health/SoreThroat.htm [Accessed November 2012]
  3. NHS Choices, Sore Throat. Link http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/Sore-throat/Pages/Introduction.aspx [Accessed November 2015]

UK/DIF/15/0002c Date of preparation: November 2015