Medically known as “pharyngitis”, sore throat is the layman’s term to describe an infection that causes the throat to feel scratchy, tender, swollen, or painful. It normally occurs when inflammation begins to form on the pharynx, hence its name.
Irritation caused by a sore throat leads to discomfort that intensifies when swallowing food and liquids. Apart from throat pain, sore throats also instigate a variety of symptoms that largely depend on the underlying cause of infection.
What Causes Sore Throat Infections?
Several factors can trigger sore throats. Different types of sore throats also exist, and they’re often classified according to the cause of infection. These include:
- Viral and Bacterial Pathogens
In most cases, a sore throat is just one symptom that manifests due to a bacterial or viral infection. Viruses that cause upper respiratory infection account for the majority of cases and there are several viral pathogens that can lead to a sore throat. The most common ones include:
- Rhinovirus and coronavirus
These viruses usually cause common cold and flu. They’re also responsible for a quarter of all sore throat infections.
Parainfluenza is the causative agent of Croup, which is an illness that mostly affects children. It is often characterized by a harsh, bark-like cough.
- Epstein-Barr Virus
This is the virus that’s responsible for mononucleosis infection and glandular fever.
- Mumps Virus
The mumps virus causes the swelling of the salivary glands and swallowing food or drinks becomes a very painful process.
- Varicella-zoster virus
This is the causative agent of chicken pox, which is a condition associated with skin sores.
The viral pathogen that leads to measles, a disease characterized with fever and a distinctive rush.
- Herpes Simplex Virus 1
Herpes simplex virus is the causative agent of cold sores on the skin, particularly around the mouth and lips. It also causes the lymph nodes in the neck to swell and a bad case of sore throat in some instances.
Although not as common, some bacterial microorganisms can cause sore throats as well. These include:
- Streptococcal Bacteria
These pathogens lead to a less common infection called strep throat.
- Bordetella Pertussis
This is the same bacterium responsible for whooping cough. It normally attacks the respiratory mucous membrane to cause an inflamed throat infection.
- Diphtheriae Bacterium
The diphtheria bacterium is known to bring about sore throat infection.
Once an infection occurs, be it viral or bacterial, two types of sore throats that can develop. The first one is pharyngitis, which normally causes inflammation of the oropharynx (the area at the back of your throat). The other type of infection is tonsillitis, which generally leads to inflammation of tonsils, the two lumps of tissue at the back of your mouth where the throat begins.
- Allergens and Environmental Factors
Throat infections are not always viral or bacterial. They can also develop after an individual is exposed to certain irritants or environments that irritate the throat. For instance, if you’re allergic to pollen, dust, pet hair, or molds, you may then experience a sore throat as your body’s way of fighting off the irritation.
Furthermore, allergens that irritate the upper respiratory system usually trigger post-nasal drip. When excess mucus accumulates at the back of your throat, tissues around the pharynx will start to swell and may become painful.
Some people develop sore throats from drinking cold beverages or when exposed to cold weather. Throat irritation rates tend to increase during winter months since dry and heated indoor air can make the throat feel scratchy and rough.
Other causes of infection include breathing through your mouth due to nasal congestion, breathing cigarette smoke, chewing tobacco, drinking alcohol, eating spicy food, and exposure to chemical irritants.
- Blocked Nose (Sore Throat at Night)
Some people suffer from sore throat at night that goes away during the day. When a person suffers from a blocked nasal cavity and breathes through the mouth due to that or habitually while fast asleep then the body gets its required oxygen through the mouth. By using mouth to breathe, dry air is allowed to enter mouth cavity. This in turn causes moist throat tissues to dry up, resulting in the irritation of the throat.
Sore throat is a common symptom of Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD), a disorder in which stomach acid flows back into the food pipe. In this case, infections come about when stomach acid irritates the throat. Throat pain may also be accompanied with other GERD symptoms like bitterness or sourness in the mouth, hoarseness in the voice, burning sensation or the feeling of a lump in the throat, and heartburn.
- Other Causes
Other factors that trigger or increase the risk of sore throat infections include:
- Straining of The Throat muscles
Just like other muscles in the body, your throat muscles can also become sore when you overwork them. The only difference is that the soreness will not result from intense exercising, but rather the strain of yelling or talking too much.
People who suffer from cancerous tumors that affect the throat, mouth, or voice box often experience pain and soreness in the throat. This discomfort may also be accompanied with symptoms like swallowing difficulty, bloody saliva, phlegm, noisy breathy or a lump in the neck.
What Increases the Risk of Sore Throat?
Sore throats can affect people of all ages. However, there are some factors that increase the risk of infection. These include:
- Hypersensitivity to Airborne Allergens
Airborne allergens such as pet dander, pollen, dust, and molds can irritate the throat. If you’re very sensitive to these allergens, your chances of developing a sore throat are higher when compared to people who do not have such allergies.
- Exposure to Chemical Irritants and Cold Environments
People who are constantly exposed to chemical irritants and cold environments are more susceptible to sore throats. Common sore throat chemical irritants include tobacco smoke, toxic fumes from burning fossil fuels, and some household chemicals.
- Chronic or Recurring Sinus Infection
Sore throats can come and go on a frequent basis if you suffer from chronic sinus infection. Recurring infections can be attributed to nasal drainage where excess mucus in the pharynx irritates the throat and causes swelling. Nasal drainage may also allow a common cold infection to spread to the throat.
Children and teens are more likely to develop sore throats as compared to adults. The reason for this is that the immune system of a child or teenager is still under development. As such, young individuals might have to go through more than one sore throat infection to develop some resistance to this illness.
- Compromised Immune Function
People with a compromised immune function are at a higher risk of developing recurring sore throats. Some of the common factors that decrease immunity include chronic diseases like HIV, leukemia, diabetes, as well as stress, fatigue, poor diet or treatment with steroid and chemotherapy drugs.
- Visiting Congested Places or Living in Close Quarters
Sore throat infections, especially those caused by bacteria, are very contagious. Both viral and bacterial infections can easily spread in public places where many people gather such as bus stations, classrooms, and children nurseries.
Usually, an infection is transferred through airborne droplets after a sick person sneezes or coughs. People may also become infected by touching hands, surfaces, or objects with infected saliva or nasal droplets.
Symptoms of Sore Throat
Sore throats can cause a variety of symptoms, all of which differ depending on the root cause of infection. However, one symptom shared by everyone afflicted with this illness is the feeling of throat pain and discomfort that worsens when swallowing or talking. In some cases, an itchy feeling in the throat may be present as well.
Usually, sore throats result from an existing infection. As a result, infected individuals may experience additional signs and symptoms. Depending on the cause of infection, some of the common sore throat symptoms include:
- Viral Related Symptoms
- Nasal congestion or a running nose
- Bacterial Related Symptoms
- Swollen tonsils and lymph nodes in the neck
- White patches (exudates) on tonsils
- Fever and chills
- Other Symptoms
- Tenderness at the back of the mouth
- Refusal to eat (a symptom of sore throat in infants)
- Loss of appetite
- Husky voice
- Body and ear aches
The distinction between bacterial-related strep throat infections and sore throats caused by viruses is not always present. In such cases, infected individuals may consult a healthcare expert to confirm the diagnosis.
Diagnosis of Sore Throat Infection
It’s important to know the root cause of infection because bacterial-related sore throats respond well to antibiotics while viral ones do not. Determining the cause of infection will therefore help your doctor to recommend the right treatment.
When you have a sore throat and visit the doctor, the primary test to diagnose your condition is a physical exam where a light apparatus is used to inspect the throat for signs of inflammation or white patches. Your physician may also feel the neck to check for swollen lymph glands.
A throat culture is another common test for sore throat. Your doctor will simply rub a sterile swab at the back of your mouth. The sample is then checked for bacteria or viruses, with lab test results returning within 24 to 48 hours.
If the infection is suspected to have come from an allergen, several allergy tests may also be conducted. In addition, a blood sample may be taken for conducting a CBC test, which gives precise results as to whether your sore throat is due to a viral or bacterial agent.
You may be referred to an ENT (Ear, Nose and Throat) specialist for further tests if other signs and symptoms indicate the presence of a more serious condition other than a simple sore throat.
Sore Throat Treatment Options
Everyone experiences a sore throat at some point in life. Normally, it doesn’t take longer than 3 to 4 days for the irritation in the throat to fully clear up on its own with some extra care like by drinking more water, avoiding spicy or fried foods, and sucking on a couple of lozenges until our throats feel better.
- When to Visit a Doctor
In most cases, a sore throat isn’t something that’s life-threatening and your immune system will clear away this infection within a week. However, if sucking on lozenges doesn’t seem to be alleviating the pain and that the pain seems to be worsening despite your diet of bland foods, then it’s recommended to visit a doctor to check whether a serious medical condition is causing persistent sore throat to get worst.
It’s advisable to head straight to a hospital and discontinue any form of self-medication if sore throat is further accompanied by conditions like a high fever, extreme pain, drooling, or difficulties in breathing and swallowing.
Depending on the diagnosis, treatment options for serious sore throat cases can range all the way from over-the-counter painkillers, antibiotics to surgery.
- Painkillers and Decongestants
If a viral infection is causing a sore throat, a decongestant may be prescribed to clear the nasal tract and make way for easier breathing. Treatment for painful sore throats may also involve the use of painkillers such as paracetamol (acetaminophen), aspirin or ibuprofen to ease the discomfort. And if you’re running a fever, the use of aspirin will help to bring your temperature down while taking away the soreness of your throat. Just take note that aspirin isn’t recommended for people under the age of 16.
Although it may be relatively easy to purchase painkillers without a prescription, always be sure to consult a doctor first if you have any of these conditions:
- Respiratory illnesses such as asthma
- Ulcers in the stomach
- Liver disease
- Kidney problems
Individuals who are suffering from any of the abovementioned conditions are likely be on medications, and you’ll need to seek a doctor’s advice on the contraindications (if any) between a particular painkiller and your current medications.
For serious bacterial infections, your doctor will prescribe antibiotics to eliminate the organisms causing the infection. However, the use of antibiotics to treat sore throats is usually not recommended for generally healthy people since it can cause unwanted side effects like diarrhea, indigestion, pains in the abdominal region, a loss of appetite, and antibiotics resistance. In certain cases, an allergic reaction to the antibiotic may sometimes lead to an individual breaking out in itchy rashes too, adding on to the pain and trauma one is already experiencing.
But despite these possible side effects, the use of antibiotics to treat sore throats may not be avoidable for certain groups of people. These include:
- People who suffer from HIV
- Diabetic patients
- Individuals who suffer from widespread inflammation in the body
- People who have recurring sore throats caused by the streptococcus bacteria
If your doctor has placed you on a course of antibiotics, keep in mind that it’s important to complete your sore throat medication dose even if symptoms start to clear up after a few days. Discontinuing the treatment too early can cause the sore throat to recur. And the next time your painful sore throat comes back, the prescribed antibiotics may not work as effectively anymore.
- Surgery For Tonsillitis
Surgery is recommended for people who are suffering from tonsillitis, which is perhaps the most serious and painful type of sore throat infection. While the use of painkillers, decongestants, and antibiotics can help alleviate the pain to a certain extent, a tonsillitis sufferer may be required to undergo surgery if the infection does not subside after a week.
Tonsillectomy, which is the surgery to remove the tonsils, is the recommended treatment plan if:
- You suffer from an extremely painful sore throat that’s decreasing the quality of your life
- Your sore throat recurs more than 7 times a year
- And, if you suffer from a sore throat that’s caused by tonsillitis itself
- Home Remedies for Sore Throat
Besides using over the counter drugs such as throat lozenges, decongestants, paracetamol, and anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen, you can also use a few home remedies to treat sore throats. These include:
- Gargling warm salty water and resting the voice
- Drinking hot fluids like lemon tea and soups
- Avoiding exposure to secondhand tobacco smoke, cold beverages and airborne irritants that trigger allergic reactions
How Long Does a Sore Throat Last?
In most cases, a sore throat presents itself as one of the symptoms of a common cold and will clear away within 2 to 7 days. However, you should seek treatment if:
- Symptoms last for more than a week.
- Sore throats do not respond well to over-the-counter medications.
- Breathing becomes a problem.
- Swallowing saliva and fluids becomes next to impossible or extremely difficult.
- You have a fever.
- You start drooling.
- You have a weak immune system due to an underlying chronic disease.