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Sore throat - Pharyngitis
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Sore throat - Pharyngitis
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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.

Screening and diagnosis

Most often, your doctor or your child's pediatrician will diagnose the cause of a sore throat on the basis of a physical exam and a throat culture. During the exam, your doctor is likely to check your throat for redness and swelling and for white streaks or pus on your tonsils. Although these signs indicate an infection, there's no way to tell by looking if it's viral or bacterial. In fact, some viral throat infections look worse than infections caused by streptococcus bacteria.

For that reason, your doctor is likely to take a throat culture or non-culture rapid strep test to check for the presence of the streptococcal bacteria that cause strep throat. For such testing, a sterile swab is rubbed over the back of your throat and tonsils to get a sample of the secretions. It's not a painful procedure, but it may cause brief gagging.

In the past, the only way to accurately diagnose strep throat was to have these secretions cultured in a laboratory — a procedure could take up to two days. Now, your doctor may use a rapid test that checks for bacterial infections within hours.

Complications

Although most bacterial throat infections aren't dangerous, they can lead to serious complications. Strep throat, in particular, can cause other infections, such as tonsillitis, sinusitis, ear infections and scarlet fever — an illness marked by fever, severe sore throat and rash.

Strep throat may also lead to kidney damage (glomerulonephritis) and rheumatic fever. Rheumatic fever, especially, can be quite serious, causing inflammatory spots (nodes) to form in various tissues, including the joints, skin and muscles. These nodes also may form on the heart muscle, the lining of the heart and especially the heart valves — causing scarring that can interfere with the flow of blood inside the heart. Although surgery can sometimes repair scarred valves, the damage may often be permanent. In some cases this damage may lead to heart failure.

Complications of viral infections
Although bacterial infections that cause sore throats are generally more serious than viral infections, even viral infections aren't without risk. Infectious mononucleosis, for instance can lead to an enlarged, and possibly ruptured, spleen. Other complications of mononucleosis include:

  • Liver inflammation (hepatitis)

  • Low levels of blood cells involved in clotting (platelets)

  • Anemia

  • Inflammation of the heart

  • Nerve damage, possibly leading to paralysis

  • Swollen tonsils, leading to obstructed breathing

Mononucleosis can have even more serious implications for people who have impaired immune systems, such as those living with AIDS or taking steroids, chemotherapy medications or drugs to suppress immunity following an organ transplant.

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This information is provided for general medical education purposes only and is not meant to substitute for the independent medical judgment of a physician relative to diagnostic and treatment options of a specific patient's medical condition.
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