Do antibiotics make sore throats go away quicker?

Photo of doctor examining a patient with tonsillitis
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Antibiotics can shorten the length of throat infections by between half a day and one day on average. But they can have side effects, and using too much increases the risk of becoming resistant to them.

A lot of people go to the doctor because of a sore throat – particularly in the cold season. Sore throats are often caused by a common cold, and sometimes by a throat or a tonsil (tonsillitis). People may then wonder whether or not to take . But won't help in most cases: Sore throats that are part of a common cold are usually caused by viruses, and don't fight viruses. Antibiotics only help in people who have a bacterial infection, such as bacterial tonsillitis. Most sore throats go away on their own within a week anyway, without any special treatment.

Certain symptoms suggest that the sore throat is being caused by a bacterial . If you have a fever and swollen tonsils with a coating of white or yellowish spots on them, but you don't have a cough, you could have bacterial tonsillitis. Doctors can find out whether it's bacterial using a throat swab to get a sample of secretions from your throat or tonsils. The sample can be tested straight away in what is known as a rapid test, but the results aren't very accurate. They are somewhat more accurate if the sample is sent to a lab and checked for there. This is hardly ever done, though, because it takes 2 to 3 days to get the results back. So are usually prescribed based on symptoms alone, if the throat is suspected to be caused by . This means that a number of people who take don't benefit from them because their sore throat is caused by a viral .

Effectiveness of treatment with antibiotics

Because are often used for sore throats even though it isn't clear whether are really to blame, it would be interesting to known how effective this medication is. Researchers at the (an international network of researchers) analyzed a total of 27 studies including more than 12,800 people. In these studies one group of people took and another group took a placebo (fake medicine). Most of the study participants had signs of a bacterial . The following results do not apply to people who have milder symptoms that are probably caused by a viral .

The studies showed that taking can speed up recovery somewhat:

  • About 80 out of 100 people who didn't take still had a sore throat after three days.
  • About 55 out of 100 people who took still had a sore throat after three days.

The results after one week:

  • About 40 out of 100 people who didn't use still had a sore throat.
  • About 20 out of 100 people who used still had a sore throat.

In some of the participants a swab test detected certain that can cause bacterial tonsillitis. The were a bit more effective in that group of people.

The studies also showed that can prevent complications such as middle ear infections. People who take are also less likely to develop a different complication called quinsy (also known as a peritonsillar abscess). This is a build-up of pus beside a tonsil. But these and other complications are rare in people who are otherwise healthy, even if they don't take . They occur in less than 1 to 10 out of 1,000 people who go to a doctor because of their symptoms.

Side effects of antibiotics

Antibiotics can have side effects too, though: Other studies have found that about 10 out of 100 adults experience side effects while taking, or after taking, . The most common include diarrhea and rashes. What's more, using too much and even when treating less serious medical conditions can cause to become resistant. This means that the are no longer killed by the . As a result, a lot of serious medical conditions can no longer be treated as successfully as before.

Spinks A, Glasziou PP, Del Mar CB. Antibiotics for sore throat. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2013; (11): CD000023.

IQWiG health information is written with the aim of helping people understand the advantages and disadvantages of the main treatment options and health care services.

Because IQWiG is a German institute, some of the information provided here is specific to the German health care system. The suitability of any of the described options in an individual case can be determined by talking to a doctor. informedhealth.org can provide support for talks with doctors and other medical professionals, but cannot replace them. We do not offer individual consultations.

Our information is based on the results of good-quality studies. It is written by a team of health care professionals, scientists and editors, and reviewed by external experts. You can find a detailed description of how our health information is produced and updated in our methods.

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Updated on January 17, 2019
Next planned update: 2022

Authors/Publishers:

Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG, Germany)

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