Causes of Throat Pain and Treatment Options

Everything you need to know about throat pain

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Throat pain is very common. It can be caused by a variety of ailments. Most of us will be affected by some of these ailments at some point in our lifetimes.

Throat pain can make it difficult to eat and drink. If severe enough, swallowing problems can lead to weight loss or other problems.

This article will cover the different causes of throat pain and explain when you should see a doctor. It will also offer suggestions for easing a sore throat.

throat pain causes

Verywell / Alexandra Gordon

Causes of Throat Pain

There are many possible causes of a sore throat. Some of the most common include:

Viral Infections

Examples include the flu, cold viruses, COVID-19, croup, and mononucleosis. Less commonly, herpangina, measles, and chickenpox may cause a sore throat.

Bacterial Infections

Strep throat is a bacterial infection of the throat. It can cause severe throat pain and difficulty swallowing. The tonsils may also become very swollen.

A bacteria called Arcanobacterium haemolyticum can also cause throat pain as well as a rash.

Bacterial causes of throat pain need to be treated with antibiotics. If left untreated, strep throat complications can include heart or kidney damage.

Sinus Infections

Your sinuses are a set of hollow cavities in your skull. Bacteria, viruses, and even fungus can infect the sinuses and cause post-nasal drip. This is when mucus runs down the back of the throat. The infected mucus can cause a sore throat.

Allergies

Dust, mold, or dander allergies can cause post-nasal drip that contributes to a sore throat.

Acid Reflux

Stomach acid can enter the esophagus, back of the throat, and mouth while you are sleeping. That's why a sore throat caused by acid reflux is often worse in the morning. Nighttime acid reflux can also wear away the protective enamel on teeth.

A Look at Acid Reflux

Environmental Irritants

Irritation from dry air, chemicals, or cigarette smoke can cause a sore throat. This can be made worse by breathing with your mouth open.

Laryngitis

Laryngitis is an inflammation of your voice box. This can happen when you overuse your voice. Laryngitis can be a problem for singers and other people who use their voices as part of their work. The condition also causes hoarseness and pain when talking.

Intubation

Intubation is a procedure where a breathing tube is inserted into the airway. This can cause irritation that leads to throat pain.

Breathing tubes are used during surgery or due to illness or injury. The pain is temporary and will usually go away a day or two after the tube is removed.

Surgery

Throat surgeries like thyroidectomy, or removal of the thyroid, can also cause throat pain.

Other Medical Procedures

Medical procedures like esophagogastroduodenoscopy (EGD) may cause throat pain. During an EGD, an endoscope is inserted through the mouth and into the throat. This procedure is also called an upper endoscopy.

Throat Cancer

Tumors or other growths associated with throat cancer can cause throat pain. This is not a common cause of sore throat. Other causes are much more likely.

Recap

Sore throat can have many causes. Viral and bacterial infections, allergies, acid reflux, and environmental irritants are all potential causes of throat pain.

When to See a Doctor for Throat Pain

If your sore throat lasts more than a week and you do not know its cause, see a doctor. Your doctor will need to rule out serious conditions that might lead to dangerous health problems.

Viral and Bacterial Infections

If your throat pain is caused by an infection, you will probably have other symptoms. These may include:

See a doctor if you have extreme pain or severe swelling of the tonsils. Throat pain accompanied by a rash is often bacterial. A doctor can decide if you need antibiotics.

It is hard to tell the difference between bacterial and viral throat pain. Strep throat can lead to serious complications if left untreated, so when in doubt, get tested.

Almost any healthcare provider can perform a strep test. This includes family practitioners and urgent care providers.

Post-Nasal Drip

A sore throat with post-nasal drip is rarely cause for concern. Still, if lasts longer than a few weeks, you should see a doctor. Your family doctor is a good place to start, but you may also need to see an allergist. An allergist can determine if allergies are the cause of your sore throat.

Acid Reflux

If you have throat pain that is worse in the morning or is accompanied by stomach pain and heartburn, it could be acid reflux. This requires a doctor's diagnosis. It is not an emergency, but it does need to be treated.

Family doctors and general practitioners often diagnose acid reflux. They can perform diagnostic tests or refer you to a specialist if needed.

Over-the-counter and prescription medications can treat throat pain related to acid reflux. It is still important to see a healthcare provider for an initial diagnosis, though. This will help rule out any serious conditions.

Sore Throat After Surgery

Throat pain that happens just after you have had general anesthesia or a breathing tube inserted is probably not cause for concern. If the pain does not go away within a few days, though, you may want to contact your doctor.

Some surgeries, such as a thyroidectomy, can cause throat pain on their own, so keep this in mind.

Emergencies

The following conditions are actual emergencies. Call 911 or go to the emergency room if you have throat pain with:

  • Persistent drooling
  • Inability to swallow
  • Difficulty breathing

Recap

Many sore throats can be treated at home. If your throat pain lasts more than a week or it is hard to swallow or breathe, see a doctor.

How Throat Pain is Diagnosed

There are many different ways to diagnose throat pain. A doctor may examine you, look at your medical history, or order tests and/or imaging.

Throat Culture

A throat culture is a test where the back of the throat is brushed with a long cotton swab. The swab is usually sent to a laboratory to be analyzed for bacteria. If it is a rapid strep test, you will get immediate results.

Rapid strep tests can sometimes produce false negatives. For this reason, the throat culture is usually sent to the lab for further testing. You may get a call in a day or two to confirm a strep throat diagnosis.

A sore throat that is caused by sinusitis or infections of the nasal passageways may be diagnosed with a throat culture. The clinician may also take samples of your sputum, which is the material you cough up.

Allergy Testing

Blood tests or allergy skin tests can tell a doctor if your sore throat is caused by allergies.

During a skin test, a clinician exposes you to an allergen—something you may be allergic to—through a tiny scratch in your skin. If you are allergic, you will have a reaction. Blood tests can also look for antibodies (immune system proteins) to specific allergens.

The results of skin testing are available immediately. Blood test results may take a few days.

Medication Trials

A trial of acid reflux medication can help your doctor find the cause of your sore throat. If you respond to the medication, your doctor may diagnose you with acid reflux.

Similarly, a trial of antihistamine medication can help your doctor diagnose allergies. This may be done before allergy testing.

Imaging

Medical imaging including computed tomography (CT) scans, ultrasounds, or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans can be used to diagnose throat pain. This may be done if the suspected cause is a lump or growth, or sinusitis.

Acid reflux and similar problems are often diagnosed with an upper endoscopy.

Another test that can be used is a barium swallow. During this test, you will be asked to drink a thick solution containing barium. The barium coats your esophagus and stomach to make them visible on x-rays.

Physical Exam

Your doctor will also do a physical exam to look at your throat and feel your neck. You'll also be asked about your symptoms and health history.

Your doctor will examine you for lumps or bumps in the throat. A lump or bump that accompanies a sore throat could be a lymph node. It could also be something more concerning. If your doctor can not identify it as a lymph node, you may need a biopsy.

Recap

Throat pain can be diagnosed a number of different ways. You may need lab tests or imaging. A doctor may also diagnose you based on your symptoms.

How Throat Pain is Treated

There are a few options for treating your sore throat. Many of these can be started right away.

Lifestyle Treatment Options

Some simple steps can help ease your sore throat:

  • Drink plenty of fluids
  • Avoid smoke
  • Use a humidifier, a device that adds moisture to the air

Medications

There are a variety of medications available for treating the causes of throat pain. Other medications can treat sore throat symptoms.

Antibiotics

Antibiotics are used to treat bacterial infections like strep throat. They do not work against viruses. This treatment may be a one-time injection or oral antibiotics taken over a period of time.

Make sure to let your doctor know if you have any drug allergies. There are many alternative antibiotics you can take if you are allergic to penicillin or another antibiotic.

Antihistamines

Antihistamines can help your allergy symptoms. When you contact a allergen like pollen, mold, or dander, your body releases histamine. Histamine plays a role in the sensation of pain, so taking an antihistamine can help with an allergy-related sore throat. Over-the-counter antihistamines include:

Acid Reflux Medication

Successful treatment of acid reflux can take time. The sooner you are diagnosed and treated, the sooner symptoms like sore throat will go away.

Your doctor may start you on a trial of an H2 (histamine) blocker or a proton pump inhibitor (PPI). Both of these medication types are available over the counter. They include:

Pain Medication

Pain medication can help control the pain from any type of sore throat. Over-the-counter options include:

These medicines are very effective at controlling sore throat pain.

If your sore throat pain is severe and/or the pain makes it hard to swallow, your doctor may prescribe glucocorticoids. These include:

Over-the-counter throat sprays like Cepacol (benzocaine/glycerin) and Vicks Formula 44 (glycerin/phenol) can also help relieve your pain. Cough drops may also be helpful.

Complementary and Alternative Medicine

Warm, caffeine-free tea can help you stay hydrated. Try adding honey, pectin, or glycerin to your tea. These ingredients are called demulcents. There is limited research on their effectiveness, but they may help relieve irritation and create a soothing film in your throat.

Some people report relief after taking a commercial product called Throat Coat. Throat Coat contains:

A small study showed a significant decrease in pain 30 minutes after using Throat Coat.

Findings on a variety of Chinese herbs and acupuncture are inconsistent. Doctors don't usually recommend these remedies. Still, some people have found them helpful.

Talk to your doctor before taking herbal medications, especially if you are also taking prescribed medication.

Recap

Some sore throat treatments address the cause of the pain. Others treat the pain itself. Treatment can include medication, lifestyle changes, and alternative therapies.

Preventing Throat Pain

Many of the causes of sore throat can be prevented. If you know why your throat is sore, you may be able to prevent future sore throats by treating the underlying cause. Lifestyle changes and better hygiene can also help you avoid sore throats.

Preventing Viral and Bacterial Infection

Hand washing is the best way to prevent sore throats caused by viruses and bacteria. Wash for at least 20 seconds. Make sure you wash from your fingernails to your wrists. Thorough hand washing greatly reduces your chances of getting an infection. Hand sanitizer is a good alternative when you are not near a bathroom.

Preventing Acid Reflux

Acid reflux can be related to your weight. Ask your doctor if this may be true for you. If so, weight loss is a great lifestyle adjustment. It can reduce your symptoms and help prevent long-term throat pain.

Long-Term Allergy Treatment

Ask your doctor about long-term use of oral or nasal allergy medications. Immunotherapy such as allergy shots may also be an option.

Recap

Many sore throats can be prevented. Lifestyle changes, good hygiene, and medication to treat the underlying causes can often prevent throat pain.

Summary

Sore throats can have many causes, including viruses and bacteria, acid reflux, and allergies. See a doctor if your sore throat lasts more than a week or if it is hard to swallow. Sore throat can be diagnosed with lab tests or a simple exam. Sometimes imaging may be required. 

Over-the-counter medications can treat the cause and the symptoms of many sore throats. Alternative remedies may also help. If you have a bacterial infection, you may need antibiotics. 

Hand washing can help prevent sore throats caused by viral and bacterial infections. Lifestyle changes and long-term medication use may help sore throats that have other causes.

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