Pharyngitis In Children

What is pharyngitis?

Pharyngitis is also called sore throat. It is an inflammation (swelling) or infection of the tissues and structures in your child's pharynx (throat). The symptoms of pharyngitis may be mild or severe. Your child may have pharyngitis many times a year.

What causes pharyngitis?

  • Viral pharyngitis: Pharyngitis in children is usually caused by a virus, such as cold or flu viruses. Pharyngitis is common in adolescents with an illness called infectious mononucleosis (mono). Mono is caused by the Epstein-Barr virus.

  • Bacterial pharyngitis: Pharyngitis may be caused by bacteria. The most common bacteria that cause pharyngitis is group A streptococcus (strep throat). Adolescents who are sexually active can get a sore throat from gonorrhea or other sexually shared bacteria.

How is pharyngitis spread to other people?

Pharyngitis can spread when an infected person coughs or sneezes. Pharyngitis can also be spread if the person shares food and drinks. A carrier can also spread pharyngitis. A carrier is a person who has the bacteria in his throat but does not have symptoms. Germs are easily spread in schools, daycare centers, work, and at home. Some germs that cause pharyngitis may be passed between adolescents who are sexually active.

What are the signs and symptoms of pharyngitis?

  • Your child may have any of the following with viral pharyngitis:

    • Cough

    • Hoarseness

    • Runny or stuffy nose

    • Irritated, watery eyes

    • Diarrhea

    • A rash on his body or in his mouth

  • Your child may have any of the following with bacterial pharyngitis:

    • Sudden pain in his throat, and pain when he swallows

    • Fever and headache

    • Red, swollen throat and bad breath

    • Whitish-yellow patches on the back of his throat

    • Nausea (sick to his stomach), vomiting (throwing up), and stomach pain

    • Tender, swollen lumps on the sides of his neck

    • Rash that looks like a sunburn with little bumps

How is pharyngitis diagnosed?

  • Signs and symptoms: Your child's caregiver will look into your child's throat and feel the sides of his neck and jaw. The signs and symptoms that your child has may help show whether he has an infection.

  • Tests: Your child's caregiver may do a throat culture. A cotton swab is rubbed against the back of your child's throat. This test may show if bacteria are causing your child's sore throat and the type of bacteria that are causing it.

How is pharyngitis treated?

Pharyngitis usually gets better without treatment within a few days. With treatment, your child may feel better faster. He may be able to return to school more quickly. Treatment may help prevent the spread of infection to others. It may also decrease your child's risk of heart or kidney problems as a result of the infection. Your child may need any of the following:

  • Medicines:

    • Ibuprofen or acetaminophen: Ibuprofen and acetaminophen are over-the-counter medicines that are given to decrease pain and fever. Ask your child's caregiver what medicine to give your child, and how much and how often to give it. Do not give aspirin to children under 18 years of age. Your child may develop a very serious illness called Reye syndrome if he takes aspirin when he is ill. Read medicine labels to see if your child's medicine has aspirin in it.

    • Antibiotics: Your child may need to take antibiotics if bacteria are the cause of his pharyngitis. Follow caregivers' instructions carefully. Make sure your child finishes all the doses of antibiotics. Your child is still contagious (can infect others) for 24 hours after he starts to take the antibiotics. If other family members have symptoms of pharyngitis, they may also need to be treated.

    • Steroids: Steroid medicine may be given to reduce swelling in your child's throat.

  • Surgery: If your child often gets pharyngitis with symptoms such as fever and pain, he may need his tonsils removed. Tonsils are tissues on both sides of your child's throat that contain cells to fight infection. Your child may have pharyngitis less often after his tonsils are removed.

What are the risks of pharyngitis?

  • If your child takes antibiotics, he may have side effects, such as nausea or diarrhea. He also may have an allergic reaction to the medicine. Frequent antibiotic use may decrease how well the medicine can fight infection. Your child may still get throat infections even if he has surgery to take out his tonsils.

  • If your child has a bacterial infection and does not take antibiotics, the infection may get worse. It may spread to his ears, sinuses, and other body areas. Your child may have problems breathing or swallowing. Without treatment, pharyngitis may lead to more serious illnesses, such as peritonsillar abscess or meningitis. Your child may get rheumatic fever, which can lead to problems with his heart or joints. The infection may spread to his neck veins and lungs. Ask your child's caregiver for more information about these risks.

How can I help care for my child with pharyngitis at home?

  • Rest: Have your child rest as much as possible.

  • Increase liquids: Give your child liquids so that he does not get dehydrated. Give him liquids that are easy to swallow and will soothe his throat.

  • Sore throat relief: If your child is 12 years or older, give him throat lozenges or hard candy to help decrease his throat pain. If your child can gargle, give him one-quarter of a teaspoon of salt mixed in 1 cup of warm water to gargle.

  • Add humidity: Your child may breathe more easily after he breathes in mist or steam. You may want to use a steam or cool mist vaporizer in your child's room. Ask caregivers how often and what to use to clean the device. You may run a hot water shower to make steam in the bathroom. Close the bathroom door and sit with your child near the shower as he breathes in the steam. Do not put your child in the hot shower.

How can I help prevent the spread of pharyngitis?

Wash your hands and your child's hands often. Keep your child away from other people while he is still contagious. Ask your child's caregiver how long your child is contagious. If your child is taking antibiotics, he should not share food or drinks until he has taken all the doses of antibiotics. Do not let your child share toys or pacifiers. Wash these items with soap and hot water.

When should my child return to school or daycare?

If your child has started antibiotics, ask his caregiver when he may return to school or daycare. If your child is not on antibiotics, his symptoms such as fever or sore throat may go away on their own. When his symptoms go away, your child may return to daycare or school.

Where can I find more information about pharyngitis?

  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
    1600 Clifton Road
    Atlanta , GA 30333
    Phone: 1- 800 - 232-4636
    Web Address:

When should I contact my child's caregiver?

Contact your child's caregiver if:

  • Your child has throat pain, trouble swallowing, fever, or other symptoms that are not getting better or are getting worse.

  • Your child has a bumpy, rough rash on his body. He also has reddish cheeks and a red, swollen tongue.

  • Your child has new ear pain, headaches, or pain around his eyes.

  • Your child snores or pauses in his breathing when he sleeps.

When should I seek immediate help?

Seek immediate care or call 911 if:

  • Your child suddenly has trouble breathing or swallowing, turns blue, or drools.

  • Your child has swelling or pain in his jaw area.

  • Your child has voice changes, or it is hard to understand his speech.

  • Your child has a stiff neck.

  • Your child has not urinated in 12 hours or is weak and tired.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your child's care. Learn about your child's health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your child's caregivers to decide what care you want for your child. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

© 2013 Truven Health Analytics Inc. Information is for End User's use only and may not be sold, redistributed or otherwise used for commercial purposes. All illustrations and images included in CareNotes® are the copyrighted property of A.D.A.M., Inc. or Truven Health Analytics.

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