An Overview of Sore Throat

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A sore throat can feel scratchy and painful, especially when you swallow. This is known as pharyngitis and is the result of your throat tissues becoming inflamed due to an infection or irritation. Viral infections such as colds or flu are the most common causes, but there can be others, such as acid reflux, allergies, and overuse of the vocal cords. Most often, viral sore throats will need soothing until they pass, but other causes, such as strep throat, require treatment to prevent related complications.

Symptoms

A sore throat is a symptom of a condition; it is rarely experienced on its own. Depending on the cause, you may experience symptoms from pain and scratchiness to swelling and difficulty swallowing. The pain and discomfort may occur only when you swallow or it may be continuous.

The other symptoms that accompany a sore throat can help you decide whether or not to call your doctor. They can also help a doctor get to the root of the problem.

You can follow the rule of thumb of waiting five to seven days to see if your sore throat resolves on its own. However, if you experience any of the following, you should be evaluated:

  • Fever greater than 101 degrees
  • Difficulty breathing, swallowing or opening your mouth
  • Lump in your neck
  • Hoarseness lasting more than two weeks
  • Blood in mouth or sputum
  • Rash

Even with no other symptoms, if your throat is so sore that you can't swallow or sleep, seek medical attention.

Causes

The most common causes of a sore throat are viral infections including the common cold, the flu, and mononucleosis. In young children, Coxsackie virus and herpangina are two other viral causes.

Strep throat is the cause of sore throats up to a third of the time in school-age children, and 10 percent of the time in adults and younger children. This condition is caused by bacteria and needs to be treated with antibiotics to prevent serious complications. Strep throat usually doesn't have other respiratory symptoms such as nasal drainage, cough, or congestion. You can see your doctor for a rapid strep test or a throat culture if this is suspected.

You may also experience a sore throat with allergies, post-nasal drip, overuse of the vocal cords, and smokingAcid reflux can cause a sore throat when stomach acid enters the esophagus and irritates the tissues.

Environmental irritants such as smoke, air pollution, and industrial fumes can also irritate your throat. Dry air itself can cause a dry and scratchy throat.

Treatment

If what's causing the sore throat itself can be addressed, that will be the primary focus of sore throat treatment.

For instance, when a bacterial infection such as strep throat is identified, antibiotics such as penicillin and amoxicillin are used to rid your body of the infection, in turn resolving your sore throat.

If a bacterial infection or other treatable health issue is not to blame, treating sore throat for comfort is all that can be done. That's the case with many causes, including the common cold and other viral infections.

You can use home remedies and over-the-counter pain medications, such as Advil (ibuprofen) and Tylenol (acetaminophen), to ease sore throat pain. Unfortunately, though, waiting it out is usually what's most effective.

The following tips can also help:

  • Stay hydrated by drinking at least eight glasses of water a day (more if that's your normal intake).
  • Mix honey in with your favorite tea; it can coat the throat and act as a lubricant.
  • Humidify the air by using either warm-mist or cool-mist humidifiers, or by boiling water.
  • Gargle with salt water: 1/4 teaspoon to 1/2 cup of water is a common mixture.
  • Suck on lozenges or hard candies.

There are not many high-quality studies that have supported the use of alternative therapies. Sage, slippery elm, and licorice root may be found in some herbal teas and lozenges and are believed, though not proven, to have soothing effects. Always discuss herbal medications and supplements with your doctor, as some may interact with other medications.

If your sore throat worsens or continues to progress after five to seven days, see a physician for further evaluation. What's causing your sore throat may not be what you originally thought.

A Word From Verywell

While painful, sore throats will usually go away on their own. Stay alert for signs of fever so you can call your doctor when it is appropriate. With some soothing measures the pain will pass and you'll be able to breathe (and swallow) easier.

Symptoms of a Sore Throat
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