Sore throat, also
called pharyngitis, is a painful inflammation of the
mucous membranes lining the pharynx. Most often, it's a symptom of
another illness - usually a viral infection such as
a cold or the flu (influenza). In many cases, it's
the first indication that you're getting sick.
Sore throats are so common they're one of the
main reasons see a doctor. But all
those visits may not be necessary. The great
majority of sore throats are caused by a virus and
usually go away on their own in about a week. Only
about 10 percent are bacterial infections that may
require medical care.
Most sore throat germs are transmitted through
direct contact. Someone who is sick touches a
doorknob, phone or other object. You handle the same
object, picking up the germs, which are eventually
transferred from your hands to your mouth or nose.
Bacterial infections are sometimes treated with
antibiotics, although drugs don't always speed
healing or prevent infections from recurring. And
antibiotics aren't effective against viruses, which
respond best to self-care measures such as resting
and drinking plenty of fluids. Until you're feeling
better, salt-water gargles, throat lozenges or hot
water with honey and lemon can help make having a
sore throat easier to swallow.
Signs and symptoms
A sore throat
usually occurs in combination with other signs and symptoms. These can
vary greatly, depending on the type of infection you have. For example,
in addition to an itchy or sore throat, a cold is likely to cause:
On the other hand,
influenza, which is also caused by a virus, is marked by severe
body aches, chills, sweats and a fever over 38.8 C.
Mononucleosis is a
much longer-lived viral illness associated with a severe sore throat.
Although signs and symptoms of the disease typically last about 10 days,
it can take weeks to recover your strength after a bout of mono. In
addition to a sore throat, the disease may cause:
illnesses, including measles, chickenpox and croup, also usually occur
with a sore throat.
infections associated with a sore throat include strep throat,
tonsillitis and diphtheria a serious respiratory illness characterized
by a thick, gray covering in your nose, throat or airway that causes
breathing difficulties and painful swallowing. Although vaccinations
have greatly reduced the number of cases of diphtheria, it remains a
potentially life-threatening illness.
Even more serious
is epiglottitis, an uncommon bacterial infection in which the "lid" just
above the voice box (larynx) swells, closing the airway. Epiglottitis is
a medical emergency and requires immediate care. In addition to a severe
sore throat, signs and symptoms may include:
painful and difficult swallowing
spitting because of painful swallowing
sound that occurs when your airways are blocked
when the voice box is touched
Most sore throats
are caused by viruses the same germs that cause colds and flu. A
smaller percentage are due to bacterial infections. Both types of sore
throats occur throughout the winter, when the incidence of respiratory
disease is highest. Strep throat peaks in the fall and spring.
bacteria enter your body through your mouth or nose either because you
breathe in particles that are released into the air when someone coughs
or sneezes, or because you have hand-to-hand contact with an infected
person or use shared objects such as utensils, towels, toys, doorknobs
or a telephone. Touch your eyes or nose after such contact and you're
likely to become sick yourself. For that reason, hand washing is a key
part of prevention.
Still, not all
sore throats result from viral or bacterial infections. Other common
causes of sore throat include:
The same pet dander, molds and pollens that trigger allergic
reactions such as red, swollen eyes and a runny nose can also cause
a sore throat.
Dry indoor air, especially in winter when rooms tend to be
overheated, can make your throat feel rough and scratchy,
particularly in the morning when you first wake up. Breathing
through your mouth often because of chronic nasal congestion can
also cause a dry, sore throat.
and other irritants.
Outdoor air pollution can cause ongoing throat irritation. But
indoor pollution especially tobacco smoke is an even greater
cause of chronic sore throat. What's more, inhaling secondhand smoke
is often just as damaging as smoking itself. Smokeless tobacco,
alcohol and spicy foods can also inflame your throat.
You can strain muscles in your throat just as you can strain them in
your arms or legs. If you've ever gotten a sore throat after yelling
at a concert or sporting event, you've likely strained your throat
This occurs when stomach acid backs up into your food pipe
(esophagus). Normally, a circular band of muscle (lower esophageal
sphincter) blocks acid from coming up into the esophagus. But if the
sphincter relaxes abnormally or weakens, stomach acid can back up,
irritating your throat as well as your esophagus. In many cases, you
can prevent or reduce acid reflux with simple lifestyle changes
losing weight, avoiding foods that cause you discomfort and not
eating right before bed, for example. When these aren't effective,
over-the-counter or prescription medications may offer some relief.
HIV-positive people with CD4 cell counts below 500 sometimes develop
a chronic sore throat. This isn't due to HIV itself but to a
secondary infection such as oral thrush or cytomegalovirus, a common
viral infection that can be extremely serious in immunocompromised
If you smoke or abuse alcohol, you're at high risk of tumors of the
throat, tongue and voice box. In some people these tumors cause few,
if any, signs and symptoms. In others, they can lead to hoarseness,
difficulty swallowing and sore throat.
can get a sore throat, some factors make you more susceptible to throat
problems. These factors include:
Children and teens are most likely to develop sore throats. Children between ages 5 and 18 may have as many as
five sore throats a year whereas adults have less than half that
number. Strep throat the most common bacterial infection
associated with a sore throat also occurs far more frequently in
children. Less than one in 10 adult sore throats are strep-related,
whereas up to 40 percent of sore throats in children may be caused
by strep bacteria.
exposure to secondhand smoke.
Tobacco smoke, whether primary or secondary, contains hundreds of
toxic chemicals that can irritate the sensitive lining of your
If you have seasonal allergies or ongoing allergic reactions to
dust, molds or pet dander, you're more likely to develop a sore
throat than people who don't have allergies.
Particulate matter in the air from the burning of fossil fuels as
well as common household chemicals can cause throat irritation. In
general, try to avoid biking, walking or jogging on busy roads or
exercising outdoors on high-pollution days. At home, use lemon juice
and vinegar instead of commercial cleaning products.
frequent sinus infections.
Drainage from nose or sinus infections can cause throat infections
working in close quarters.
Viral and bacterial infections spread easily anywhere people gather
childcare centers, classrooms, offices, prisons and military
You're more susceptible to infections in general if your resistance
is low. Common causes of lowered immunity include diseases such as
HIV and diabetes, treatment with steroids or chemotherapy drugs
even fatigue and poor diet.
When to seek
uncomfortable, most sore throats aren't harmful and go away on their own
in five to seven days. But sometimes they can signal a more serious
condition. See your doctor if you or a child has any of the following:
A sore throat
that is severe or that lasts longer than a week
difficulty swallowing or breathing
drooling in a young child
higher than 38.3 C in babies under age 6 months and 39.4 C in older
swollen lymph glands in the neck
Pus at the
back of the throat
that lasts longer than two weeks
saliva or phlegm
dehydration, such as sunken eyes, severe weakness and decreased
someone who has been diagnosed with strep throat
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is not meant to substitute for the independent medical
judgment of a physician relative to diagnostic and
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