What causes a sore throat in children?

Sore throats (pharyngitis) are very common. They will normally improve on their own within a week. Sore throats are not an illness in themselves, but a symptom of something else, such as a viral or bacterial infection. 

The most common cause of a sore throat is a viral infection, such as a cold or flu.  

A sore throat that is caused by a cold or flu will usually come with other symptoms, such as a cough, runny nose, fever, or headache. 

If your child has an occasional mild sore throat and no other symptoms, it may have a non-infectious cause such as: 

  • allergies 
  • smoke inhalation
  • air pollution
  • side-effects of some medications. 

Pain in the throat is often a sign of inflammation. The symptoms that come along with a sore throat will depend on what’s causing it.

How to relieve a sore throat in children

Most sore throats are caused by a virus and usually get better on their own. You can help your child cope with discomfort in the following ways: 

  • drinking plenty of fluids- try offering cool ice blocks or warm water with honey or lemon   
  • eating cool, soft foods 
  • gargling warm salty water, with a teaspoon of salt per glass (if your child is old enough to know how to gargle) 
  • sucking on a lozenge, if your child is old enough (check the product label) 
  • giving them paracetamol or ibuprofen to relieve the pain and discomfort of a sore throat or fever  

You may consider giving your child Nurofen for Children which contains ibuprofen and is suitable for children over 3 months. It will help relieve pain and reduce fever. 

If you are unsure about the cause and how to relieve your child’s sore throat, seek advice from your doctor.

How to help prevent a sore throat caused by cold and flu infections

Sore throats can be prevented by taking steps to prevent the spread of the infections that cause them. An important way to help slow the spread of cold and flu infections is with good hygiene, and that starts with teaching your child how to wash their hands correctly. Hands should be washed with soap and water and dried thoroughly. Show your child how to thoroughly clean under their nails and between their fingers for at least 20 seconds.* You can also teach your child to cough or sneeze into their elbow, or to use a tissue. Remind them to put used tissues in a bin and wash their hands afterwards. 

In your home, you can help prevent bugs from spreading by keeping your home warm and dry, creating space between your children when they sleep and making sure you do not share utensils or toothbrushes.  

Remember, to help limit the spread keep your child at home and away from others when they are feeling unwell. 

When to call a doctor

A sore throat can cause your child pain and discomfort but it’s a relief to know it will usually get better on its own. If your child is at higher risk of rheumatic fever, it’s important you make sure they get checked by a nurse or doctor. Your child is at higher risk of rheumatic fever if they, or someone in their family or household, have had rheumatic fever before, or if 2 or more of the following are applicable to them:^ 

  • Maori or Pasifika ethnicity 
  • Ages 3-5 years old 
  • Live in poorer or crowded living conditions 

For children who are not at higher risk for rheumatic fever, be sure to see your doctor if you are worried about your child’s sore throat for any reason, or if your child has:^  

  • sore throat symptoms that last for longer 2 days 
  • enlarged tender lumps in the neck  
  • increased snoring when asleep  

Your child will need immediate medical help if you notice they have: 

  • difficulty breathing 
  • great difficulty swallowing  
  • a new skin rash  
  • severe pain at the back of the throat 
  • signs of dehydration- not able to drink much, low amounts of urine, dry mouth, confused and drowsy 
  • a fever