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Sore Throat: Should I Take Antibiotics?

You may want to have a say in this decision, or you may simply want to follow your doctor's recommendation. Either way, this information will help you understand what your choices are so that you can talk to your doctor about them.

Sore Throat: Should I Take Antibiotics?

Get the facts

Your options

  • Take antibiotics for a sore throat caused by a bacterial infection.
  • Don't take antibiotics. Try home treatment instead.

Key points to remember

  • People often think antibiotics will cure their sore throat. But most sore throats are caused by a virus, such as a cold. Antibiotics won't work for sore throats caused by a virus.
  • Most of the time, sore throats go away on their own. It may take a few days or up to a week, depending on the cause.
  • To relieve the pain from a sore throat, you can take over-the-counter medicines such as aspirin or ibuprofen, or you can try lozenges or nasal sprays. Drink lots of fluids and get plenty of rest.
  • Your doctor may prescribe antibiotics to shorten the time you are able to spread strep throat—which is caused by bacteria—to others. Antibiotics will help prevent a serious but rare problem called rheumatic fever.
  • Taking antibiotics too often or when you don't need them can be harmful and costly. And the medicine may not work the next time you take it when you really do need it. This is called antibiotic resistance.
FAQs

What is a sore throat?

Sore throats can be painful and annoying. But most of the time they go away on their own. It may take a few days or up to a week, depending on the cause.

Most sore throats are caused by a virus, such as a cold. A bacterial infection can also cause a sore throat.

If you have a sudden, severe sore throat without coughing, sneezing, or other cold symptoms, you could have strep throat. Strep throat is a bacterial infection of the throat and tonsils. About 1 out of 10 sore throats in adults is caused by strep throat. This means that 9 out of 10 sore throats aren't strep.

How well do antibiotics work to treat a sore throat?

Antibiotics don't work at all for a sore throat caused by a virus. These kinds of sore throats usually go away on their own in 4 to 5 days.

If you have strep throat—which is caused by bacteria—your doctor may prescribe an antibiotic, such as penicillin. But strep throat goes away on its own in 3 to 7 days with or without antibiotics.

Antibiotics may not make you well faster. But they may shorten the time you are able to spread strep throat to others (are contagious) by a day or so.

Antibiotics may also lower the risk of a bacterial infection spreading to other parts of your body, such as your ears and sinuses. They can also prevent serious but rare problems such as rheumatic fever in children.

What are the risks of taking antibiotics for sore throat?

Antibiotics may cause side effects, such as diarrhea, vomiting, and skin rashes.

Besides side effects, there are other good reasons not to use antibiotics unless you really need them.

  • Antibiotics cost money.
  • You will probably have to see the doctor to get a prescription. This costs you time and money.
  • If you take antibiotics when you don't need them, they may not work when you do need them. Each time you take antibiotics, you are more likely to carry some bacteria that were not killed by the medicine. Over time, these bacteria get tougher and can cause longer and more serious infections. To treat them, you may need different, stronger, and more costly antibiotics.

How can you treat a sore throat without antibiotics?

Home treatment is often all you need to treat a sore throat. Try these treatment tips:

  • Gargle with warm salt water several times a day to reduce throat swelling and pain. Mix 1 teaspoon of salt in 8 ounces of water.
  • Drink extra fluids to soothe your throat. Honey or lemon in weak tea may help. Don't give honey to children younger than 1 year of age.
  • Get plenty of rest.
  • Take over-the-counter medicine such as aspirin or ibuprofen to relieve pain and reduce fever. But do not give aspirin to anyone younger than 20. Aspirin has been linked to Reye syndrome, a serious illness.
  • Try throat lozenges that have a painkiller to numb your throat, such as Sucrets Maximum Strength. Regular cough drops may also help.
  • Try a decongestant. It can make breathing easier and relieve a runny nose and postnasal drip, which can make your throat hurt. You can take it as a pill or as a nasal spray. Before you use this medicine, check the label. It may not be safe for young children or for people with certain health problems.

Why might your doctor recommend taking antibiotics for a sore throat?

Your doctor may advise you to take antibiotics if you have strep throat, which is caused by bacteria. Antibiotics will only work if your sore throat is caused by bacteria.

Your doctor will do a rapid strep test or a throat culture to find out if you have strep throat.

Compare your options

Compare

What is usually involved?









What are the benefits?









What are the risks and side effects?









Take antibiotics Take antibiotics
  • You take an antibiotic, usually penicillin, for as long as your doctor prescribes. Most antibiotics are taken for 10 days. Or you may get a single shot of penicillin.
  • You take the full course of medicine, even if you start to feel better.
  • If your sore throat is caused by bacteria, such as with strep throat, antibiotics will shorten the time you are able to spread the infection to others.
  • The medicine may lower the risk of the bacterial infection spreading to other parts of your body, such your ears or sinuses.
  • The medicine can also prevent serious but rare problems from strep throat, such as rheumatic fever in children.
  • Antibiotics won't work for a sore throat caused by a virus.
  • Side effects of antibiotics can include diarrhea, vomiting, and skin rashes.
  • Antibiotics cost money. They may not make you well faster.
  • Taking antibiotics too often or when you don't need them can be harmful. The medicine may not work the next time you take it when you really do need it.
Don't take antibiotics Don't take antibiotics
  • You try home treatment for your sore throat. You can:
    • Gargle with salt water.
    • Take over-the-counter medicine such as aspirin or ibuprofen to relieve pain.
    • Drink extra fluids to soothe your throat.
    • Get plenty of rest.
  • If your sore throat is caused by a virus, it will likely go away on its own in 4 to 5 days. If you have strep throat, which is caused by bacteria, it will likely go away on its own in 3 to 7 days.
  • You save money on a doctor visit and medicines.
  • You don't have the side effects from antibiotics.
  • If your sore throat is caused by a virus, there are no risks or side effects of not taking antibiotics.
  • If your sore throat is caused by bacteria:
    • You may be sick a day or so longer than if you do take antibiotics.
    • You have a higher risk of the infection spreading to other parts of your body, such as your ears or sinuses.
    • You could make other people around you sick if you are still contagious.

Personal stories

Are you interested in what others decided to do? Many people have faced this decision. These personal stories may help you decide.

Personal stories about taking antibiotics for sore throat

These stories are based on information gathered from health professionals and consumers. They may be helpful as you make important health decisions.

I was sick a lot as a kid, and I was always taking medicine. Maybe it helped at the time. But in the past few years, when I've gotten a bad sore throat or sinus infection, antibiotics haven't worked. I've had to try two or three different ones each time. That gets expensive. The next time I get a sore throat, I'm going to try just staying home, resting, and taking care of myself instead of taking antibiotics.

Jesse, 34

My 8-year-old daughter got strep throat last month. I thought it was just a cold, and I kept her home from school for a few days. But she wasn't getting better and she felt so miserable. I was also worried about ear infections. She gets a lot of those too. The doctor did a strep test and suggested she take antibiotics. Amy started feeling better a few days later. I think antibiotics were the right way to go this time.

Marla, 39

My insurance doesn't pay for all of my medicines, so I try to make sure I really need the ones I do take. The last time I had a bad cold, my throat got really sore. The pain made it hard for me to swallow. I called my doctor's office and the nurse said I could come in if I felt I needed a prescription. I thought I'd wait and see instead. I took ibuprofen and drank a lot of tea and honey, and in a few days I felt better. I'm glad I didn't spend the money on a doctor visit and medicine.

Esther, 42

I'm pretty healthy most of the time, but this past winter I got sick. I was down for 3 or 4 days. It turns out I had an infection in my throat and tonsils. The doctor thought I should take antibiotics because of my age and health. And I wanted to get over it as soon as possible so I could go back to my volunteer job at the local hospital. I think the medicine helped me get back on my feet just a little sooner than if I hadn't taken it.

George, 79

What matters most to you?

Your personal feelings are just as important as the medical facts. Think about what matters most to you in this decision, and show how you feel about the following statements.

Reasons to take antibiotics for a sore throat

Reasons not to take antibiotics for a sore throat

I want to take medicine even if there's only a chance it will help me get well faster.

I may not want to take medicine if it won't help me get well faster.

More important
Equally important
More important

I'm worried about my sore throat turning into an ear infection or sinus infection.

I'm not worried about my sore throat turning into an ear infection or sinus infection.

More important
Equally important
More important

I'm not worried about the risk of taking antibiotics too often.

I'm worried about the risks of taking antibiotics too often.

More important
Equally important
More important

I've had a sore throat for more than a week, and it's not getting better.

I've had a sore throat for just a few days.

More important
Equally important
More important

My other important reasons:

My other important reasons:

More important
Equally important
More important

Where are you leaning now?

Now that you've thought about the facts and your feelings, you may have a general idea of where you stand on this decision. Show which way you are leaning right now.

Taking antibiotics

NOT taking antibiotics

Leaning toward
Undecided
Leaning toward

What else do you need to make your decision?

Check the facts

1.

Do most sore throats go away on their own?

  • YesYou're right. Most of the time, sore throats go away on their own. It may take a few days or up to a week, depending on the cause.
  • NoSorry, that's not right. Most of the time, sore throats go away on their own. It may take a few days or up to a week, depending on the cause.
  • I'm not sureIt may help to go back and read "Get the Facts." Most of the time, sore throats go away on their own. It may take a few days or up to a week, depending on the cause.
2.

Is it harmful to take antibiotics too often?

  • YesYou're right. Taking antibiotics too often or when you don't need them can be harmful and costly. The medicine may not work the next time you take it when you really do need it.
  • NoSorry, that's not right. Taking antibiotics too often or when you don't need them can be harmful and costly. The medicine may not work the next time you take it when you really do need it.
  • I'm not sureIt may help to go back and read "Get the Facts." Taking antibiotics too often or when you don't need them can be harmful and costly. The medicine may not work the next time you take it when you really do need it.
3.

Do antibiotics work if a sore throat is caused by a virus, such as a cold?

  • YesSorry, that's not right. Most sore throats are caused by a virus, such as a cold. Antibiotics won't work for sore throats caused by a virus.
  • NoYou're right. Most sore throats are caused by a virus, such as a cold. Antibiotics won't work for sore throats caused by a virus.
  • I'm not sureIt may help to go back and read "Get the Facts." Most sore throats are caused by a virus, such as a cold. Antibiotics won't work for sore throats caused by a virus.

Decide what's next

1.

Do you understand the options available to you?

2.

Are you clear about which benefits and side effects matter most to you?

3.

Do you have enough support and advice from others to make a choice?

Certainty

1.

How sure do you feel right now about your decision?

Not sure at all
Somewhat sure
Very sure
3.

Use the following space to list questions, concerns, and next steps.

Your Summary

Here's a record of your answers. You can use it to talk with your doctor or loved ones about your decision.

Your decision 

Next steps

Which way you're leaning

How sure you are

Your comments

Your knowledge of the facts 

Key concepts that you understood

Key concepts that may need review

Getting ready to act 

Patient choices

Credits

Credits
CreditsHealthwise Staff
Primary Medical ReviewerAdam Husney, MD - Family Medicine
Specialist Medical ReviewerCharles M. Myer, III, MD - Otolaryngology
You may want to have a say in this decision, or you may simply want to follow your doctor's recommendation. Either way, this information will help you understand what your choices are so that you can talk to your doctor about them.

Sore Throat: Should I Take Antibiotics?

Here's a record of your answers. You can use it to talk with your doctor or loved ones about your decision.
  1. Get the facts
  2. Compare your options
  3. What matters most to you?
  4. Where are you leaning now?
  5. What else do you need to make your decision?

1. Get the Facts

Your options

  • Take antibiotics for a sore throat caused by a bacterial infection.
  • Don't take antibiotics. Try home treatment instead.

Key points to remember

  • People often think antibiotics will cure their sore throat. But most sore throats are caused by a virus, such as a cold. Antibiotics won't work for sore throats caused by a virus.
  • Most of the time, sore throats go away on their own. It may take a few days or up to a week, depending on the cause.
  • To relieve the pain from a sore throat, you can take over-the-counter medicines such as aspirin or ibuprofen, or you can try lozenges or nasal sprays. Drink lots of fluids and get plenty of rest.
  • Your doctor may prescribe antibiotics to shorten the time you are able to spread strep throat—which is caused by bacteria—to others. Antibiotics will help prevent a serious but rare problem called rheumatic fever.
  • Taking antibiotics too often or when you don't need them can be harmful and costly. And the medicine may not work the next time you take it when you really do need it. This is called antibiotic resistance.
FAQs

What is a sore throat?

Sore throats can be painful and annoying. But most of the time they go away on their own. It may take a few days or up to a week, depending on the cause.

Most sore throats are caused by a virus, such as a cold. A bacterial infection can also cause a sore throat.

If you have a sudden, severe sore throat without coughing, sneezing, or other cold symptoms, you could have strep throat. Strep throat is a bacterial infection of the throat and tonsils. About 1 out of 10 sore throats in adults is caused by strep throat. This means that 9 out of 10 sore throats aren't strep.

How well do antibiotics work to treat a sore throat?

Antibiotics don't work at all for a sore throat caused by a virus. These kinds of sore throats usually go away on their own in 4 to 5 days.

If you have strep throat—which is caused by bacteria—your doctor may prescribe an antibiotic, such as penicillin. But strep throat goes away on its own in 3 to 7 days with or without antibiotics.

Antibiotics may not make you well faster. But they may shorten the time you are able to spread strep throat to others (are contagious) by a day or so.

Antibiotics may also lower the risk of a bacterial infection spreading to other parts of your body, such as your ears and sinuses. They can also prevent serious but rare problems such as rheumatic fever in children.

What are the risks of taking antibiotics for sore throat?

Antibiotics may cause side effects, such as diarrhea, vomiting, and skin rashes.

Besides side effects, there are other good reasons not to use antibiotics unless you really need them.

  • Antibiotics cost money.
  • You will probably have to see the doctor to get a prescription. This costs you time and money.
  • If you take antibiotics when you don't need them, they may not work when you do need them. Each time you take antibiotics, you are more likely to carry some bacteria that were not killed by the medicine. Over time, these bacteria get tougher and can cause longer and more serious infections. To treat them, you may need different, stronger, and more costly antibiotics.

How can you treat a sore throat without antibiotics?

Home treatment is often all you need to treat a sore throat. Try these treatment tips:

  • Gargle with warm salt water several times a day to reduce throat swelling and pain. Mix 1 teaspoon of salt in 8 ounces of water.
  • Drink extra fluids to soothe your throat. Honey or lemon in weak tea may help. Don't give honey to children younger than 1 year of age.
  • Get plenty of rest.
  • Take over-the-counter medicine such as aspirin or ibuprofen to relieve pain and reduce fever. But do not give aspirin to anyone younger than 20. Aspirin has been linked to Reye syndrome, a serious illness.
  • Try throat lozenges that have a painkiller to numb your throat, such as Sucrets Maximum Strength. Regular cough drops may also help.
  • Try a decongestant. It can make breathing easier and relieve a runny nose and postnasal drip, which can make your throat hurt. You can take it as a pill or as a nasal spray. Before you use this medicine, check the label. It may not be safe for young children or for people with certain health problems.

Why might your doctor recommend taking antibiotics for a sore throat?

Your doctor may advise you to take antibiotics if you have strep throat, which is caused by bacteria. Antibiotics will only work if your sore throat is caused by bacteria.

Your doctor will do a rapid strep test or a throat culture to find out if you have strep throat.

2. Compare your options

  Take antibiotics Don't take antibiotics
What is usually involved?
  • You take an antibiotic, usually penicillin, for as long as your doctor prescribes. Most antibiotics are taken for 10 days. Or you may get a single shot of penicillin.
  • You take the full course of medicine, even if you start to feel better.
  • You try home treatment for your sore throat. You can:
    • Gargle with salt water.
    • Take over-the-counter medicine such as aspirin or ibuprofen to relieve pain.
    • Drink extra fluids to soothe your throat.
    • Get plenty of rest.
  • If your sore throat is caused by a virus, it will likely go away on its own in 4 to 5 days. If you have strep throat, which is caused by bacteria, it will likely go away on its own in 3 to 7 days.
What are the benefits?
  • If your sore throat is caused by bacteria, such as with strep throat, antibiotics will shorten the time you are able to spread the infection to others.
  • The medicine may lower the risk of the bacterial infection spreading to other parts of your body, such your ears or sinuses.
  • The medicine can also prevent serious but rare problems from strep throat, such as rheumatic fever in children.
  • You save money on a doctor visit and medicines.
  • You don't have the side effects from antibiotics.
What are the risks and side effects?
  • Antibiotics won't work for a sore throat caused by a virus.
  • Side effects of antibiotics can include diarrhea, vomiting, and skin rashes.
  • Antibiotics cost money. They may not make you well faster.
  • Taking antibiotics too often or when you don't need them can be harmful. The medicine may not work the next time you take it when you really do need it.
  • If your sore throat is caused by a virus, there are no risks or side effects of not taking antibiotics.
  • If your sore throat is caused by bacteria:
    • You may be sick a day or so longer than if you do take antibiotics.
    • You have a higher risk of the infection spreading to other parts of your body, such as your ears or sinuses.
    • You could make other people around you sick if you are still contagious.

Personal stories

Are you interested in what others decided to do? Many people have faced this decision. These personal stories may help you decide.

Personal stories about taking antibiotics for sore throat

These stories are based on information gathered from health professionals and consumers. They may be helpful as you make important health decisions.

"I was sick a lot as a kid, and I was always taking medicine. Maybe it helped at the time. But in the past few years, when I've gotten a bad sore throat or sinus infection, antibiotics haven't worked. I've had to try two or three different ones each time. That gets expensive. The next time I get a sore throat, I'm going to try just staying home, resting, and taking care of myself instead of taking antibiotics."

— Jesse, 34

"My 8-year-old daughter got strep throat last month. I thought it was just a cold, and I kept her home from school for a few days. But she wasn't getting better and she felt so miserable. I was also worried about ear infections. She gets a lot of those too. The doctor did a strep test and suggested she take antibiotics. Amy started feeling better a few days later. I think antibiotics were the right way to go this time."

— Marla, 39

"My insurance doesn't pay for all of my medicines, so I try to make sure I really need the ones I do take. The last time I had a bad cold, my throat got really sore. The pain made it hard for me to swallow. I called my doctor's office and the nurse said I could come in if I felt I needed a prescription. I thought I'd wait and see instead. I took ibuprofen and drank a lot of tea and honey, and in a few days I felt better. I'm glad I didn't spend the money on a doctor visit and medicine."

— Esther, 42

"I'm pretty healthy most of the time, but this past winter I got sick. I was down for 3 or 4 days. It turns out I had an infection in my throat and tonsils. The doctor thought I should take antibiotics because of my age and health. And I wanted to get over it as soon as possible so I could go back to my volunteer job at the local hospital. I think the medicine helped me get back on my feet just a little sooner than if I hadn't taken it."

— George, 79

3. What matters most to you?

Your personal feelings are just as important as the medical facts. Think about what matters most to you in this decision, and show how you feel about the following statements.

Reasons to take antibiotics for a sore throat

Reasons not to take antibiotics for a sore throat

I want to take medicine even if there's only a chance it will help me get well faster.

I may not want to take medicine if it won't help me get well faster.

More important
Equally important
More important

I'm worried about my sore throat turning into an ear infection or sinus infection.

I'm not worried about my sore throat turning into an ear infection or sinus infection.

More important
Equally important
More important

I'm not worried about the risk of taking antibiotics too often.

I'm worried about the risks of taking antibiotics too often.

More important
Equally important
More important

I've had a sore throat for more than a week, and it's not getting better.

I've had a sore throat for just a few days.

More important
Equally important
More important

My other important reasons:

My other important reasons:

More important
Equally important
More important

4. Where are you leaning now?

Now that you've thought about the facts and your feelings, you may have a general idea of where you stand on this decision. Show which way you are leaning right now.

Taking antibiotics

NOT taking antibiotics

Leaning toward
Undecided
Leaning toward

5. What else do you need to make your decision?

Check the facts

1. Do most sore throats go away on their own?

  • Yes
  • No
  • I'm not sure
You're right. Most of the time, sore throats go away on their own. It may take a few days or up to a week, depending on the cause.

2. Is it harmful to take antibiotics too often?

  • Yes
  • No
  • I'm not sure
You're right. Taking antibiotics too often or when you don't need them can be harmful and costly. The medicine may not work the next time you take it when you really do need it.

3. Do antibiotics work if a sore throat is caused by a virus, such as a cold?

  • Yes
  • No
  • I'm not sure
You're right. Most sore throats are caused by a virus, such as a cold. Antibiotics won't work for sore throats caused by a virus.

Decide what's next

1. Do you understand the options available to you?

2. Are you clear about which benefits and side effects matter most to you?

3. Do you have enough support and advice from others to make a choice?

Certainty

1. How sure do you feel right now about your decision?

Not sure at all
Somewhat sure
Very sure

2. Check what you need to do before you make this decision.

  • I'm ready to take action.
  • I want to discuss the options with others.
  • I want to learn more about my options.

3. Use the following space to list questions, concerns, and next steps.

Credits
ByHealthwise Staff
Primary Medical ReviewerAdam Husney, MD - Family Medicine
Specialist Medical ReviewerCharles M. Myer, III, MD - Otolaryngology

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