It’s one of the most common symptoms of the virus right now.
In the past, when you came down with a bad sore throat, you may have grabbed a large tea from Starbucks, popped a few cough drops and chugged along with your day. But this year, a scratchy, irritated throat has taken on a whole new meaning: Sore throat is one of the
most common symptoms of the Omicron variant of COVID. According to a recent British survey, 69% of COVID patients reported a sore throat, making it far more common than symptoms that were hallmarks of the earlier strains, such as loss and taste and smell (another study confirmed that sore throat is more common from Omicron than it was from Delta variants of the virus).
“As the COVID virus has evolved, it has started causing more upper respiratory symptoms and fewer lower respiratory symptoms during its disease course,” says Peter Ashman, MD, an otolaryngologist with ENT and Allergy Associates in New York. “This means that sore throat has become a much more common symptom as a result. Coughing and nasal symptoms have also become more common.” He points out that all that coughing and sneezing has also resulted in increased amounts of virus being released into the environment — which makes this strain more transmissible.
In general, sore throat is most commonly caused by a virus, and whether you catch COVID, the common cold or a flu, it happens the same way: The virus runs through your bloodstream and binds with certain types of cells, says Shawn Allen, MD, a rhinologist and ENT specialist at My Houston Surgeons. “It can affect the lining that runs down your nose or the throat toward the airways,” he explains. This causes inflammation at the back of the throat, which makes it feel scratchy and hoarse.
While your body will eventually fight off the virus and the sore throat on its own, there are certain things you can do to feel better in the meantime.
Yes, but chances are, if you’re vaxxed and boosted, your sore throat might not become as severe or last as long. While there haven’t been any studies specifically about vaccination status and the severity of sore throat, studies show that those who are vaccinated are more likely to have more mild symptoms and a reduced duration of symptoms and overall severity, says Dr. Ashman. According to a 2022 study in BMJ, vaccinated and boosted people had symptoms of Omicron for an average of 4.4 days, compared with a general average of 6.87 days. “Therefore, it’s reasonable to assume that the vaccine may also reduce the severity of a COVID sore throat overall.”
A sore throat is usually one of the first COVID symptoms to appear, and it can last from two or three days up to a week, says Dr. Allen. “However, with the more extreme cases of COVID, we’re seeing some sore throats last upwards of several weeks,” he adds.
This antiviral treatment Paxlovid, which must be taken within the first five days of the onset of COVID, can help your body clear the virus and limit the course of the disease, which, in theory, will then reduce the duration of your sore throat. To be eligible to take Paxlovid, you must have mild-to-moderate symptoms and have risk factors, which can include being over 65, having a chronic health condition, or being immunocompromised.
If you develop any trouble swallowing or breathing, notice voice changes, have a high fever, check in with your doctor immediately, says Dr. Ashman. Both experts stress that if the sore throat lasts more than two weeks, you should see your primary care physician or a throat specialist to see if there is something else going on, such as long COVID, a throat ulcer or a malignancy.
Marisa Cohen is a contributing editor in the Hearst Lifestyle Group’s Health Newsroom, who has covered health, nutrition, parenting, and culture for dozens of magazines and websites over the past two decades.
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