Sore Throat and Headache
What is a headache with a sore throat?
Most people get headaches many times during their lives. A headache causes pain in your head or face. The pain may be throbbing, sharp or dull.
A sore throat (pharyngitis) is pain or irritation in your throat. It might feel scratchy, painful or dry. It often hurts more when you swallow.
Sometimes, you have both a headache and sore throat. Most often, an infection causes those symptoms to happen together.
What if I also have a fever with a headache and sore throat?
If you have a sore throat, headache and a fever, then you probably have an infection. A fever is your body’s way of fighting infection.
The combination of fever, sore throat and headache could be due to:
- Influenza (the flu).
- Mononucleosis (mono).
- Strep throat.
How common are symptoms like headache and sore throat?
Sore throat and headaches are common symptoms. Almost everyone will experience these symptoms at least once in their life.
What tests will I need?
Most of the time, your healthcare provider will diagnose you based on your symptoms and a physical exam. You may need a throat swab to diagnose strep throat. Your healthcare provider uses a stick with a cotton swab at the end to take a throat sample. They analyze the sample for bacteria to see if you have an infection.
You may need other tests, such as a blood test or imaging scans, to rule out other infections.
What causes headache and sore throat?
Many conditions can cause you to get both a headache and sore throat. You could have both of these discomforts due to a:
Viral infection, such as:
- Common cold and other upper respiratory infections.
Bacterial infection, including:
- Bacterial meningitis.
- Strep throat.
Other conditions, such as:
- Allergies, which may also cause watery, itchy eyes and sneezing.
- Tonsillitis, when tonsils become inflamed due to bacteria or a virus.
- Peritonsillar abscess, a complication of tonsillitis.
Rarely, your headache and sore throat may be from:
- Early signs of HIV infection.
- Head and neck cancer.
- Lemierre’s syndrome, a life-threatening complication of a bacterial throat infection.
- Secondary stage of syphilis, a sexually transmitted infection.
Is my sore throat and headache due to a viral or a bacterial infection?
If you have both a headache and sore throat, it could be a viral or bacterial infection. They have similar symptoms.
If you have a runny nose, cough and hoarse voice, you most likely have a viral rather than bacterial infection. There are no medications to treat viral infections. The virus will go away on its own. You usually feel better in about a week.
If it’s bacterial, your healthcare provider may prescribe antibiotics, such as penicillin.
What are the symptoms of sore throat and headache?
When you have a sore throat, you may have:
- Pain or scratchiness in your throat.
- Pain that’s worse when you speak or swallow.
- Hoarse voice.
- Swollen lymph nodes in the neck (you may be able to feel small lumps on the side of your neck).
- Red or swollen tonsils with white spots on them.
Your headache symptoms may include pain that:
- Comes on slowly.
- Feels dull and aching.
- Affects both sides of your head.
It’s also not unusual to have fatigue with sore throat and headache. Fatigue, chills and muscle aches are all symptoms of viral and bacterial infections.
Care and Treatment
What is the treatment for sore throat and headache?
Usually, you can treat sore throat and headache with at-home remedies. If you have strep throat, your provider will prescribe antibiotics to get rid of it. Take all the medicine, even though you’ll start to feel better within a day or two.
At-home treatments for sore throat and headache include:
- Fluids, especially water, tea with honey, soup or broth.
- Throat lozenges or ice cubes.
- Warm saltwater gargle.
- Over-the-counter medications, such as acetaminophen, ibuprofen and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).
- Humidifier or shower.
- Cool compress on your head.
- Plenty of rest.
If your child has a headache and sore throat, remember:
- Choose the right medication: Don’t give aspirin to young children. It may cause a life-threatening condition called Reye’s syndrome. Make sure to choose pain relievers made for infants and children.
- Avoid hard candies: Lozenges or other hard candies can be a choking hazard for young children.
- Don’t give honey to babies: Avoid giving honey to infants under a year old. Babies don’t have defenses against infant botulism.
Can I prevent a sore throat and headache?
The best way to prevent sore throat and headache is to avoid infections and illness. Tips include:
- Wash hands often: Always wash hands after going to the bathroom or changing a diaper and before eating or preparing food.
- Don’t share: Don’t share food, water bottles, glasses or other eating utensils.
- Use good cough hygiene: When coughing or sneezing, use a tissue. If you don’t have a tissue, use the crook of your elbow. Don’t cough or sneeze into your hand.
- Stay home if you’re sick: Isolate yourself as much as you can until you feel better. And be around other people who are not feeling well.
- Avoid allergy triggers: Take precautions to avoid your allergy triggers. Allergies can cause coughing and sneezing.
- Practice safe sex: Use a condom or dental dam to avoid sexually transmitted infections.
- Avoid tobacco and alcohol products: Try to stay away from cigarettes and limit alcohol. These products increase your risk of developing head and neck cancers.
What’s the outlook for people with sore throat and headache?
A sore throat and headache can usually go away within a week. Most of the time, you won’t need medical treatment. There are usually no long-term complications.
If you do have strep throat, make sure to take the full course of antibiotics. These drugs treat the infection and prevent complications, including rheumatic fever.
When to Call the Doctor
When should I see a healthcare provider about headache and sore throat?
You can try at-home sore throat and headache remedies. But see a healthcare provider if your symptoms last for more than a week, or if they go away but come back.
You should also see a provider if you have these symptoms along with your sore throat and headache:
- High fever (above 103 degrees F for adults or 104 degrees F for children).
- Stiff neck.
- Difficulty breathing.
- Excessive drooling (in babies or young children).
- Nausea or vomiting.
- Swelling in the face or neck or a large lump in the neck.
- Trouble swallowing.
- Unexplained rash.
- Acting confused.
You should also be on the lookout for signs of meningitis. This life-threatening condition has flu-like symptoms. If you or your child has signs of meningitis, seek immediate medical help.
Meningitis symptoms include:
- Sudden high fever.
- Severe headache.
- Stiff neck (trouble moving neck up and down).
- Nausea and vomiting.
- Sensitivity to light.
- Fatigue, feeling sleepy.
When can I go back to work or school?
If you have a sore throat or headache, wait until you have been symptom-free for at least 24 hours before returning to work. Your child should stay home from school or day care until they have been symptom-free for 24 hours.
If you have strep throat, you can usually return to work or school once the fever is gone and you have taken antibiotics for at least 24 hours.
What else should I ask my healthcare provider?
If you have a sore throat and headache, ask your healthcare provider:
- Do I need any tests?
- Could these symptoms be a sign of an infection?
- What can I do to feel better?
- What should I do if the symptoms don’t go away in a week?
- What medications can I take to help?
- Do I need a strep test?
- Will antibiotics help?
Sore throat and headache are common symptoms. Often, they’re signs of a viral or bacterial infection. For a viral infection, you most likely won’t need medications. The virus will clear up on its own in about a week. Make sure to drink plenty of fluids. You can take over-the-counter pain relievers to feel better. Your healthcare provider may want to check for signs of strep throat or meningitis, which need treatment. If you have a sudden high fever, neck stiffness or other worrying symptoms, see your healthcare provider.
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