Sore throats: do I need antibiotics?
Sore throats are very common. They are often caused by a virus but they can also be due to a bacterial infection. They usually get better on their own within a week without needing antibiotics.
Using antibiotics when they are not needed means they may not work as well in the future. This is a serious health risk so NICE has written advice about when to offer antibiotics for some common conditions.
Most people with a sore throat (including tonsillitis) won’t be offered antibiotics because:
- A sore throat will usually get better without antibiotics whether it is a bacterial or viral infection.
- Antibiotics make little difference to how long a sore throat lasts.
- Antibiotics can cause side effects, like diarrhoea.
The diagram below shows information from a study that looked at what happened when people took antibiotics for sore throat compared with what happened to people who didn’t.
Source: This information comes from a study by Spinks et al (2013) that combined the results from 13 separate studies of antibiotics in 2,974 adults and children.
When might antibiotics be offered?
An antibiotic might help when a sore throat is caused by a streptococcal bacterial infection (‘strep’ throat). Healthcare professionals should ask people about their symptoms to help them decide if they would benefit from antibiotics.
Talk to your pharmacist about other ways to help with symptoms, such as taking painkillers and drinking fluids. You may also like to try medicated lozenges (throat sweets) which could help to ease the pain.
You will be prescribed antibiotics if you need them, such as if you are very unwell or are at risk of complications. Sometimes you might be offered a back-up antibiotic prescription, which you can use to get an antibiotic in a few days if you feel no better, or start to feel worse.
In the news
Read NICE news about how this guideline will help.
The majority of sore throats do not need antibiotics and medicated lozenges may only help to reduce pain by a small amount, NICE says
Where can I find out more?
Decisions about treatment and care are best when they are made together. Your health professionals should give you clear information, talk with you about your options and listen carefully to your views and concerns.
NHS Choices has more information about:
We have also written information on why antibiotics should be used wisely.
We wrote this guideline with health professionals and members of the public. All the recommendations are based on the best research available.
This page was last updated: 26 January 2018