This parent friendly article covers the signs and symptoms of sore throats, the treatment and complications that can occur in children with sore throats.

What causes a sore throat?

Sore throats are part and parcel of life with children – they are normally a mild condition, caused by a virus, that passes in a few days.

Sore throats can be part of a cold or flu, or be part of more serious conditions such as glandular fever.

Approximately 20% of sore throats are caused by the streptococcus bacteria, known as strep throat. These need medical attention and treatment with a course of antibiotics.

Your child may also have a sore throat if they have whooping cough, croup, measles or chickenpox.

Other causes of sore throats include:

  • Allergies
  • Reflux – where acidic stomach contents burn the throat
  • Irritations – from smoke, spicy foods, or from yelling and screaming
  • Tumours – investigation is needed of any long term sore throats particularly if associated with pain radiating to the ear, hoarseness of the voice, weight loss and lump in the neck
  • Epiglottitis – a medical emergency where bacteria have caused the voice box (larynx) to swell and risk closing the airway. Symptoms include extremely painful throat, muffled speech, drooling and difficulty breathing.

Signs and symptoms of a sore throat

  • Pain
  • Discomfort
  • A scratchy or raw feeling in the throat
  • Crying during feeding
  • Loss of appetite
  • Strep throat may cause abdominal pain and a red rash with small spots under the arms and in skin creases.

Treatment for sore throats

See a doctor if your child is:

  • Quite unwell,
  • Running a fever
  • Complaining of earache
  • Has a rash
  • Is refusing to take fluids
  • The sore throat persists
  • You see white patches at the back of your child’s throat
  • They are having difficulty any difficulty talking, swallowing or breathing
  • A hoarse voice lasts more than two weeks
  • There is a lump in the neck or blood when they cough up saliva

Your doctor will do a physical examination of the throat and take a throat swab. If bacteria cause the sore throat, antibiotics will be prescribed – mild painkilling mixtures may also be prescribed.

Risks and complications of a sore throat

Recurrent sore throats may mean your child will need a tonsillectomy.

Left untreated strep throat can progress to cause serious problems such as:

  • Heart damage – damaging the heart valves (rheumatic fever)
  • Kidney problems
  • Pneumonia
  • Ear infections causing earache
  • Scarlet fever

Are there any remedies for sore throats?

  • Children with strep throat need to be kept home from school until their fever has gone and they are feeling better
  • Older children can be given medicated lozenges to suck on – or try a teaspoon of manuka honey for them to suck on
  • Older children could be taught to gargle with warm, salty water
  • Give soothing foods – such as cooling ice-cream or perhaps an ice block
  • Try and encourage your child to keep drinking as this will help hydrate and flush the body – avoid pineapple and citrus juices which might burn the throat.


Now that you know more about sore throats, you may want to arm yourself with more expert health advice, see our Common childhood illnesses section.

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Kimberley Paterson is a writer and public relations expert living in Whangaparaoa. She had an initial career as a registered nurse and has spent the last 20 years writing about health and well-being.

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