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Sore throat in children

Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen MartinReviewed on 19.10.2023 | 3 minutes read

A sore throat is a pain, scratchiness, or irritation of the throat that often worsens when your child swallows. It may come out of the blue if they’re fighting a viral or bacterial infection, and they may also experience cold symptoms like a runny or blocked nose, sneezing, a fever, coughing, and headache. You might be able to feel that the glands in their neck are enlarged, and they may be quite tender to the touch.

If you look in the back of their throat, you might see one or both tonsils are enlarged and red, causing the gap between them to reduce, and you may notice some white spots on the tonsils.

Doctor’s advice

What causes a sore throat? 

The most common cause of a sore throat is a viral infection such as a cold or flu. Other causes can be due to:

  • bacterial tonsillitis
  • pharyngitis
  • swollen neck glands
  • sore throat in the aftermath of an infection
  • swallowing something that has scratched, like chips or a foreign object
  • breathing through the mouth when sleeping
  • screaming or forceful vomiting
  • allergies
  • environmental factors like dry air, exposure to smoke
  • postnasal drip mucus from the nose dripping down the throat secondary to an infection
  • tonsil stones - small, hard deposits in the tonsils
  • irritants - breathing through the mouth, excessive talking or shouting

How long does it last in children?

It usually takes between 7 and 10 days for your child to clear any infection and a sore throat to resolve. It should be getting better during that time. If it lasts any longer, it’s worth speaking to a doctor.

How is it treated?

The most important thing with any infection and fever is to keep drinking fluids and stay hydrated, but this can be hard with children, especially if swallowing is uncomfortable. Using a straw may encourage them, and sucking on ice cubes can also be a good way to maintain fluids and keep the area soothed.

In children, the best way to manage a sore throat is to give them regular painkillers such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen, and these will also help bring down a fever. You can also give them warm honey and lemon drink, to soothe the throat. Honey should not be given to children less than 1-year-old as there is a risk of botulinum toxin.

If your child is older, then they may be able to gargle with warm salt water to clear any pus that tastes bad.

Difflam spray can be bought from the pharmacist to help with the pain of a sore throat. Children over 6 years old can have Strepsils, which are sore throat lozenges to help soothe their symptoms.

If the sore throat is suspected to be caused by bacteria, antibiotics may be prescribed by their doctor.

When should I take them to the doctor? 

If they are open-mouthed breathing or having other difficulty breathing, or they are drooling, you should seek urgent medical attention via the emergency department.

If you notice very enlarged tonsils or white spots at the back of the throat, you should contact your doctor, and they can assess whether this is a bacterial tonsilitis that may improve with antibiotics.

If their fever is not going down with acetaminophen and ibuprofen, they are struggling to drink enough fluids, and they are passing very little urine, they may be at risk of dehydration, and you should contact their doctor urgently.

In addition, their doctor will want to know if their sore throat has not resolved within 7 days or is getting worse.

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This article has been written by UK-based doctors and pharmacists, so some advice may not apply to US users and some suggested treatments may not be available. For more information, please see our T&Cs.
Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed on 19.10.2023
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