Medicines and treatments for a throat infection

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A sore throat will often get better by itself, as the body’s immune system can usually take care of the infection without any treatment. Antibiotics aren’t helpful for most people with a throat infection.

Most throat infections are caused by a virus, so antibiotics won’t help. Antibiotics don’t kill viruses.

Even when a throat infection is caused by bacteria, antibiotics are only recommended for people who are more likely to get complications of a throat infection or develop tonsillitis.

There are some simple but effective ways you can relieve your symptoms at home, as well as taking over-the-counter medicines for pain and fever.

What can I do to relieve my symptoms?

You can help soothe a sore throat by:

  • gargling with warm salty water
  • sucking on an ice cube or a throat lozenge
  • drinking hot water with honey and lemon — a simple and effective home remedy.

You can relieve your other symptoms by:

  • resting
  • drinking plenty of water and non-alcoholic fluids
  • avoiding exposure to cigarette smoke
  • inhaling steam to help relieve a blocked nose. Supervise your child while they breathe in steam from a hot bath or shower in a closed room.

Medicines for relieving pain and fever

Medicines you can take to help manage the symptoms of a sore throat include paracetamol, ibuprofen and aspirin.

  • Adults and children older than 1 month can take paracetamol.
  • Adults and children older than 3 months can take ibuprofen.
  • For children, the dose of paracetamol or ibuprofen for children is worked out according to how much your child weighs. Read more about measuring and administering a child’s dose of medicine.
  • Some people may not be able to take paracetamol or ibuprofen.
  • Do not give aspirin for pain or fever to children younger than 12 years as it may cause serious side effects (e.g. Reye’s syndrome, see below).
  • Do not give aspirin for fever to children 12 to 16 years old. This is because Reye’s syndrome, which can affect brain function and cause liver damage, has been associated with aspirin use in children (this is rare, i.e. fewer than 1 in 1000 people will experience the side effect).

Fevers are common in young children, especially if they have a respiratory tract infection or after a vaccination. A fever (a temperature of 38.5°C or higher) doesn’t necessarily mean your child has a serious illness. In fact, a fever helps the body's immune system to fight infection.

Read more about paracetamol, ibuprofen, and aspirin, and how to treat a fever.

Tips for using pain and fever medicines safely

  • Paracetamol and ibuprofen are common ingredients in some cold and flu medicines, so it is important to check the active ingredients on the label of your medicine to avoid ‘doubling up’ and taking other medicines that also contain paracetamol or ibuprofen.
  • It’s important to tell your health professional about all the medicines you or anyone in your care is taking — including prescription, over-the-counter and complementary medicines (‘herbal’ and ‘natural’ medicines and vitamin or mineral supplements). This is because all medicines, including herbal and natural medicines, can cause side effects and may interact with other medicines.
  • Some medicines cannot be taken by people with particular medical conditions, by people who are also taking certain other medicines, by young children, during pregnancy or when breastfeeding.

Phone for medicines information

To choose the best medicine for you or your child, ask your pharmacist or doctor for advice, and always read the label on your medicine. You can call the NPS Medicines Line on 1300 MEDICINE (1300 633 424) to get information about your prescription, over-the-counter and complementary medicines (‘herbal’ and ‘natural’ medicines and vitamin and mineral supplements) from a pharmacist. Your call will be answered by healthdirect Australia (except Queensland and Victoria).

Antibiotics aren’t helpful for most people

Antibiotics aren’t helpful for most people with a sore throat. This is because:

  • most throat infections are caused by viruses (antibiotics don’t kill viruses)
  • even if your throat infection is caused by bacteria, antibiotics won’t make much difference to your symptoms, or to the length of time you are unwell (your body’s immune system will take care of the infection — antibiotics will only shorten your illness by less than 1 day)
  • taking antibiotics when you don’t really need them can mean they won’t work when you do need them (see antibiotic resistance).

Antibiotics can prevent complications in people at risk

Your health professional will usually only prescribe antibiotics if they are concerned that you are at risk of complications of your infection, including:

  • otitis media (middle ear infection)
  • sinusitis
  • an abscess — an infection that produces pus in the tissue around the tonsils (peritonsillar abscess, also known as quinsy)
  • rheumatic fever (a rare condition that occurs after a Streptococcus pyogenes infection and causes inflammation of the heart muscle, joints, skin and brain)
  • people with a weakened immune system due to illness or medicines they may be taking to suppress their immune system.

Antibiotics are recommended to prevent complications in:

  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged 2–25 years old who have a sore throat and are living in communities at high risk of rheumatic fever (e.g. in central and northern Australia)
  • people with heart problems caused by rheumatic fever
  • people with scarlet fever.

When your health professional thinks an antibiotic will help, the recommended antibiotic is penicillin, or roxithromycin if you or your child is allergic to penicillin.

  • Antibiotic Expert Group. Therapeutic guidelines: Antibiotic; Pharyngitis and/or tonsillitis. Melbourne: Therapeutic Guidelines Ltd; 2012.
  • Rossi S, ed. Australian Medicines Handbook [online]. Adelaide: AMH, July 2012.