Sore Throat and Cough: Causes and Treatments (2023)

A sore throat is a scratchy or tender sensation in the throat that may worsen when swallowing or talking. A cough is your body's way of clearing mucus ("wet") or other irritants like dust ("dry") from your throat and lungs.

Sore throat and cough may occur together, such as with a cold or COVID-19 infection. Noninfectious factors, like allergies, may also cause a sore throat and cough.

This article will discuss the health conditions associated with a sore throat and cough and ways to relieve such symptoms at home. Strategies for preventing sore throat and cough will also be reviewed.

Sore Throat and Cough: Causes and Treatments (1)

Home Treatment for Sore Throat and Cough

Most sore throats and coughs are caused by viruses and clear up on their own. In the meantime, home treatments can help provide comfort.

Sore Throat Remedies

Simple at-home remedies to soothe a sore throat include:

  • Sucking on throat lozenges that contain a numbing agent, like benzocaine or hexylresorcinol
  • Sipping warm fluids like chicken broth or warm water with honey, which coats the throat (but do not give honey to a child under 1 year old)
  • Eating or drinking cold foods/drinks like ice water, ice cream, or Popsicles
  • Drinking throat-soothing herbal teas, like licorice root, thyme, or oregano

Besides the above interventions, a person can obtain relief by taking an over-the-counter (OTC) pain medication, such as:

  • Tylenol (acetaminophen)
  • A nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID), such as Aleve (naproxen) or Advil (ibuprofen)

Talk With a Healthcare Provider

NSAIDs and Tylenol are generally safe and well-tolerated medications. That said, speak with a healthcare provider before starting one, as they may interact with other medicines or, in some cases, cause harm. Do not give aspirin or aspirin-containing medications to anyone under 19.

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Sometimes, you may need a prescription or other OTC medications to treat the underlying cause of your sore throat.

For example, you can ease an allergy-related sore throat with the OTC steroid nasal sprayFlonase Allergy Relief (fluticasone propionate)or anantihistaminelikeZyrtec (cetirizine).

As with OTC pain relievers, speaking with a healthcare professional before starting a new drug is essential. You want to ensure the drug is safe and appropriate for your care.

Cough Remedies

Home treatments to help relieve cough include:

  • Honey and lemon: Drinking lemon or thyme tea mixed with honey
  • Salt and water gargle: Gargling with 1 cup of warm water mixed with one-half teaspoon of salt
  • Cough drops: Sucking on a cough containing honey or menthol (has a cooling effect)
  • Hydration: Increasing the amount of fluids you drink to thin and break up mucus, making coughing easier
  • Humidity: Running a cool mist humidifier in your bedroom to keep moisture in the air, which helps to thin and loosen mucus

If you are bothered by your cough, you might also talk with a healthcare provider about trying an OTC cough medicine, such as:

  • Robitussin: The active ingredient is the suppressant dextromethorphan, which reduces the cough reflex.
  • Mucinex: The active ingredient is the expectorant guaifenesin, which thins and loosens mucus in your airways.

How to Choose the Best Over-the-Counter Cough Medicine

Depending on the root cause of your cough, you may require a prescription or different OTC medicine. For example, a healthcare provider may treat a chronic, dry cough from acid reflux with an OTC antacid (e.g.,Tums), an H2 blocker likePepcid (famotidine), ora proton pump inhibitor, likePrilosec (omeprazole).

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What About Children?

Speak with a pediatrician if your child is experiencing a sore throat and cough. The above remedies may not be suitable for them.

Note that the NSAID aspirin should be avoided in kids under 19, as it's linked to a potentially fatal condition known as Reye's syndrome.

Likewise, OTC cough and cold medicines should not be given to children under age 6, as they can cause side effects.

Due to choking risk, avoid giving children younger than 6 throat lozenges. Children in this age range also cannot be expected to gargle saltwater properly.

Parents should also not give honey to babies younger than 12 months due to the potential risk of botulism, a serious nervous system condition.

What Causes a Sore Throat and Cough?

Viral infections are the most common cause of sore throat and cough. The virus invades the throat tissue, inflaming it and causing swelling, redness, and pain. The offending virus can also infect the cells lining the air passages, leading to excess mucus production and subsequent airway obstruction and cough.

Also, viral infections cause postnasal drip—when excess mucus from the nose and sinuses drips down the throat—contributing to sore throat and cough.

Viral infections associated with a sore throat and cough are:

  • Common cold can be caused by one of many viruses, including the rhinovirus. Symptoms typically include a sore throat on the first day of the cold, followed by a wet cough on day four or five. Other cold symptoms include a stuffy or runny nose and sometimes a mild fever.
  • Sinusitis occurs when the lining of the nose and sinuses (air-filled spaces within the facial bones) swell. Viruses cause most cases of sinusitis, but bacteria can cause some. Sore throat and wet cough develop from postnasal drip. Other symptoms include facial pressure and a runny or stuffy nose.
  • COVID-19 is caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Symptoms and course (timeline of symptoms) vary from person to person. The most commonly reported COVID-19 symptoms are fever, dry cough, muscle soreness, and fatigue.Sore throat is present in around 10% to 16% of cases.

Test and Stay Home If Positive

If you have a sore throat and cough, you should immediately test for COVID-19. If you test positive, stay home for at least five days andisolateyourself from others in your home.

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Two common noninfectious causes of a sore throat and cough are:

  • Allergies occur when a person's immune system abnormally reacts to a foreign substance, like dust mites, pet dander, or pollen. Post-nasal drip is a prominent cause of sore throat and cough. Inflammation of the lining of the airway passages also contributes to a dry cough.
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) occurs when stomach contents move back up the esophagus (the hollow tube that carries food to your stomach). The main symptom is heartburn (a burning sensation behind the breast bone). Sometimes, stomach acid irritates the throat and is inhaled into the lungs, causing a sore throat and dry cough.

When GERD Causes Persistent Cough

Sore Throat, Fever, and Possible Cough

Causes of sore throat, fever, and a possible or rare cough include:

  • Influenza is caused by the flu virus, which has two main types (A and B). A dry cough sometimes occurs with the flu, although it's not a prominent symptom. Besides a high fever and sore throat, other common flu symptoms include headache, muscle pain, and generalized weakness.
  • Strep throat is a bacterial infection caused by Group A Streptococcus (GAS). Besides a sore throat and fever, other symptoms include red and swollen tonsils and enlarged lymph nodes in the neck. Cough is rarely seen.

See a healthcare professional if you think you may have the flu or strep throat.

With the flu, a healthcare provider may prescribe you an antiviral drug, such asTamiflu (oseltamivir), depending on your risk level. Strep throat requires treatment with an antibiotic, typicallyAmoxil (amoxicillin).

Presence of Cough Helps Distinguish a Cold From Strep Throat

A sore throat with a cough and runny nose suggests a viral infection, like the common cold, over strep throat, in which the presence of a cough is rare.

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How to Prevent Sore Throat and Cough

Bacterial and viral causes of sore throat and cough are contagious, transmitted mainly through contaminated droplets made when people cough, sneeze, or talk. Less often, touching a contaminated surface or object transmits the infection.

The good news is that frequent handwashing, not touching your face, and disinfecting often-used home, work, and school surfaces are highly effective strategies for preventing the spread of strep throat and viral infections.

Boosting your immunity through various lifestyle strategies is also helpful. Some of these strategies include:

  • Eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables
  • Exercising regularly
  • Ensuring vaccinations are up-to-date (e.g.,theCOVID-19 vaccineand theflu shot)
  • Establishing healthy sleep habits
  • Avoiding smoking

How to Reduce Your Risk of Infectious Diseases

If your sore throat and cough are from a noninfectious cause like allergies, you should see an allergist (a doctor specializing in allergic diseases).

An allergist can help you identify specific allergens (substances that trigger an allergic reaction). You then formulate a plan with the allergist to minimize or avoid exposure to the allergens you are reacting to.

If GERD is the underlying cause, a primary care provider or gastroenterologist (a doctor who treats digestive tract diseases) may recommend weight loss if you are overweight or have obesity.

Sometimes, other preventive strategies are advised, like elevating the head of your bed at night or not eating two to three hours before bedtime.

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Sore throat and cough are common symptoms that, when seen together, often indicate a viral infection like a cold or COVID-19 infection or a non-infectious cause like allergies and acid reflux.

You can treat most viral causes of sore throat and cough with OTC medication or home remedies like sipping warm tea with honey or placing a humidifier in the bedroom. Examples of strategies to prevent infection include proper handwashing, ensuring updated vaccination, and maintaining a healthy lifestyle.


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