Sore throat: should I take antibiotics?

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Sore throat: should I take antibiotics?

  • This decision aid can help you decide whether to use antibiotics when you or your child has a sore throat.

  • It is designed to be used with your doctor to help you make a shared decision about what is best for you or your child.

What causes sore throat?

It can be caused by a viral or bacterial infection. It is hard for your doctor to tell which it is.

How long does sore throat last?

Symptoms will usually get better in 2 to 7 days, without taking antibiotics.

What are the treatment options?

There are 2 options that you can discuss with your doctor:

  1. Not taking antibiotics. This means letting the infection get better by itself.

  2. Taking antibiotics.

Symptoms, such as fever, can be treated with over-the-counter medicines. They can be used with either option.

What are the likely benefits and risks of each option?

  • Without antibiotics cough lasts about 79 hours (3.3 days)

  • With antibiotics cough lasts about 63 hours (2.6 days)

People who take antibiotics have the sore throat for only about 16 hours less than people who do not.
Figure 1 shows what is likely happen to people with sore throat who do not take antibiotics and those who do. Each circle is one person. We can’t predict who will get better sooner or who will have problems.
possible benefits of 100 people who do not take antibiotics 28 people will be better (no sore throat) by 3 days. of 100 people who do take antibiotics 34 people will be better (no sore throat) by 3 days. of 100 people who do take antibiotics, 6 more people will be better (no sore throat) by 3 days due to antibiotics. most people will be better after about 4-7 days anyway – without taking antibiotics possible risks of 100 people who do not take antibiotics 20 people will have problems, such as vomiting, diarrhoea or rash of 100 people who do take antibiotics 27 people will have problems, such as vomiting, diarrhoea or rash of 100 people who do take antibiotics, 7 more people will have problems like vomiting and diarrhoea. other antibiotic downsides are: • the cost of buying them • remembering to take them • the risk of antibiotic resistance.

Figure : Possible risks and benefits of taking antibiotics for sore throat.
Where do these estimates of benefits and risks come from?

They are from the most up-to-date medical evidence of benefits and risks about what works best. This is a review of 27 studies, and almost 13,000 people, that looked at antibiotic use in people with sore throat. The quality of this research evidence is ranked as high. This means that further research is very unlikely to change these estimates.

Why might antibiotics be used?

There are a few special reasons why your doctor might suggest antibiotics. This might be if the sore throat is caused by a dangerous, but rare, type of bacterium, or in people who are at a high risk of complications, such as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

What is antibiotic resistance?

  • Using antibiotics means the bacteria can develop resistance to the antibiotic.

  • This means that antibiotics may not work if your child needs them in the future to treat a bacterial infection.

  • A person who has recently used antibiotics is more likely to have resistant bacteria in their body.

Are there other things I can do to manage a middle ear infection?

  • Pain and fever are best treated with over-the-counter paracetamol and/or ibuprofen. Do not give more than the maximum recommended dose. Read the dose information on the packet.

  • Aspirin should NOT be used with children who are younger than 16 years.

  • Gargle with warm salty water.

  • Suck an ice cube or throat lozenge.

When should you see a doctor and get further help?

If your child with a middle ear infection has any of these signs:

Questions to consider when talking with your doctor

Do I need antibiotics?

What happens if I don’t take antibiotics?

Do I know enough about the benefits and risks of:

    1. taking antibiotics?

    2. not taking antibiotics?

Am I clear about which benefits and risks matter most to me?

Do I have enough information and support to decide?


1. Spinks A, Glasziou P, & Del Mar C. Antibiotics for sore throat. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 2013. 11: CD000023.

2. Gillies M, Ranakusuma A, Hoffmann T, Thorning S, McGuire T, Glasziou P, & Del Mar C. Common harms from amoxicillin: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized placebo-controlled trials for any indication. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 2015, 187; doi:10.1503/cmaj.140848.
The information in this decision aid is provided for general information only. It is not intended as medical advice and should not be relied upon as a substitute for consultations with a qualified health professional who can determine you or your child’s individual medical needs.
Last reviewed: November 2016. Update due: November 2018. Decision Aids funded by the Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Health Care and developed by Professor Tammy Hoffmann, Professor Chris Del Mar, and Mr Peter Coxeter - Centre for Research in Evidence-Based Practice, Bond University.

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