Pharyngitis is the inflammation of the pharynx, and often referred to as a sore throat. There are a number of causes for pharyngitis, including viral and bacterial infections. 

  1. Sore throat often accompanied by swollen lymph nodes and pain swallowing
  2. Can be triggered by the common cold and flu viruses
  3. Antibiotics only required if a bacterial infection is causing it

If you think you have pharyngitis and would like to speak to a doctor online, you can book an appointment to use our video consultation service. Our GMC-registered doctors can issue advice about how to manage the symptoms and prescribe antibiotics should you need them.

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What is pharyngitis?

Pharyngitis is inflammation of the pharynx as a consequence of a viral or bacterial infection, and is most common in children. It usually resolves itself within two weeks, and is characterised by a sore throat and pharyngeal inflammation (redness and swelling in the throat). The difference between bacterial and viral pharyngitis is the lack of a cough, blocked nose and discharge from the nose in bacterial pharyngitis. Bacterial pharyngitis is more likely to occur in the winter, whereas the viral infection is more likely to occur in the summer and autumn months.

What causes pharyngitis?

Among the common viral causes are the Epstein-Barr virus, influenza and enterovirus. The streptococcus bacteria is usually responsible for bacterial infections, and it's thought that around a third of all acute pharyngitis cases can be attributed to this bacteria. For individuals with a compromised immune system, infection from candida bacteria is a common cause of sore throats, however it rarely leads to a lasting infection in otherwise healthy people. 

Can pharyngitis lead to complications? 

Complications from pharyngitis are very rare, and mostly stem from an untreated bacterial infection. It's possible to contract scarlet fever from pharyngitis, which is a rash that develops from the same bacteria as pharyngitis. This forms a lumpy red rash on the skin. Rheumatic fever is another condition that is caused by streptococcus bacteria, and results in pain in the joints and a high temperature. Another rare complication is glomerulonephritis, which is a disease that stops the kidneys from filtering blood properly.

It can sometimes be difficult to distinguish between viral and bacterial pharyngitis, and a doctor will usually look at your throat to establish what the infection might be. There are some key indications that a doctor will ask you about. If you develop an infection and headache suddenly, this points towards a bacterial infection, whereas coughing over a few days is more indicative of a viral infection.

What should I do if I'm worried about pharyngitis?

If you are worried about pharyngitis and would like to seek some advice from a doctor, you can do so by using our online video consultation service. Book an appointment at a time convenient for you. Our prescribers will be able to advise you on how to manage symptoms of pharyngitis, and help determine if you need a physical examination to ascertain what type of pharyngitis you may have. 

They can also prescribe treatment where necessary, which you can have dispensed at our pharmacy or at your local pharmacy.

Page last reviewed:  12/06/2020
Diagnosis and treatment

How is pharyngitis diagnosed?

Pharyngitis can be diagnosed from an assessment of symptoms and from a physical examination. Sore throat, fever, headache and nasal congestion are all common symptoms. However, it's possible to have pharyngitis without all of them being present. A white fluid that seeps from the pharynx and a swelling of the glands in the neck are also common symptoms. 

A doctor may need to examine the back of the throat to confidently distinguish between pharyngitis and other conditions that affect the throat, such as laryngitis and tonsillitis. 

Will I need tests?

Tests for pharyngitis are only required if a doctor suspects that it may be a bacterial infection; in which case, they may decide to take a swab from the throat for analysis. This is known as a rapid antigen detection test, and is widely used for testing pharyngitis because the results come back very quickly. The test indicates to a doctor whether there is streptococcal bacteria present, which reflects a bacterial infection.

What will a doctor normally advise?

A doctor will typically advise you to manage symptoms of pharyngitis without using antibiotics (unless the infection is bacterial). This involves drinking lots of fluids (but not hot drinks which can exacerbate the pain), taking painkillers when necessary, gargling salt water and sucking on lozenges. For people with bacterial pharyngitis, a doctor may recommend antibiotics for a streptococcus infection. 

Prescriptions for antibiotics for pharyngitis are the leading cause of inappropriate antibiotic use, and this may result in a clinician waiting a few days before issuing a prescription to see if the infection clears. 

What treatments are there for pharyngitis?

Treatment for viral pharyngitis is similar to that of tonsillitis. It consists of allowing the infection to clear by managing the symptoms with home remedies, such as sucking on lozenges, resting and drinking plenty of fluids. 

Antibiotics can also be taken in the event of a bacterial infection, should a doctor deem them necessary. A variant of penicillin is usually the first choice, but erythromycin or clarithromycin may be considered where this is contraindicated.

Page last reviewed:  12/06/2020
Questions and Answers

How is pharyngitis treated?

There is no specific regime for viral pharyngitis, as the infection is self-limiting and will pass within two weeks. 

For bacterial pharyngitis, a doctor will normally advise a wait-and-see approach. Sometimes symptoms can clear up on their own, but in other cases, antibiotics may be advised. 

What treatments are there?

Treatments for viral pharyngitis consist of relieving the symptoms by resting and using home remedies. These include gargling salt water, sucking on lozenges and taking pain killers. 

These methods can also help for bacterial pharyngitis, but in some cases you may need to take an antibiotic, such as penicillin.

Can I consult a doctor about pharyngitis online?

If you have a sore throat and would like to speak to a healthcare professional for a diagnosis, you can use our online video consultation service. You will be able to talk to a doctor about how to manage your symptoms and they can provide input on whether further treatment may be necessary.

Page last reviewed:  12/06/2020

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