Sore Throat A Complete Guide (Symptoms, Causes & Treatment)
Sore throat is a common medical condition that affects a large number of the population throughout the world. The onset of the condition can be attributed to various environmental and immunity-related issues like infection, allergy, irritants, etc. The sore throat has been treated using home remedial methods for ages, along with the use of certain medications. The write-up sums all the important facts you should know about a sore throat.
What is a sore throat?
Sore throat is a painful condition when the throat feels scratchy and dry. It is followed by the difficulty in swallowing as the tonsils get inflamed. If the condition worsens, it can even lead to ear and sinus infections (1) (2). Sore throats are commonly divided into three types
- Pharyngitis: Pharyngitis is the most common type of sore throat that affects the pharyngeal region of the buccal cavity. The pharyngeal region comprises of the anterior region or back portion of the mouth (3).
- Laryngitis: Larynx is commonly known as the voice box. Laryngitis is the condition when sore throat develops due to swelling and redness of the larynx (4) (5).
- Tonsillitis: Tonsils are soft flesh-like tissues protruding at the back of the mouth. When the tonsils become red due to inflammation, it causes sore throat (6) (7).
Causes of a sore throat
There are various reasons that can lead to a sore throat. Some of the common causes are listed below:
1. Common cold, viral infection
The most common cause of a sore throat is observed due to the common cold. Influenza flu can also result in irritation and painful feeling in the throat. Most test results traced back the reason to be a viral infection. Around 90% of cases of the sore throat have been reported due to infection by viruses (8) (9).
Apart from common cold and influenza, there are some other virus-infected complications that can cause soreness of the throat. The diseases are discussed in further sections.
A viral infection that transmits through the air, and is quite common in children. The common symptoms of this easily communicated disease are sore throat, cough, rashes on the skin, etc (10).
It is a highly contagious infection caused by the varicella-zoster virus, itching, and flu-like symptoms like blisters on the skin, red rashes, fever, sore throat, etc (11).
Mumps is an easily transmitted viral infection that affects the parotid and the salivary glands. Sore throat due to swollen salivary glands, fever, headache, fatigue, and loss of appetite are some common symptoms of the disease (12).
Mononucleosis is also known as kissing disease as it gets transmitted by saliva. This viral infection shows symptoms like sore throat because of swollen glands of the buccal cavity, fatigue, fever, and rash (13).
6. Strep throat and microbial infection
Viruses are not the only organism that can cause soreness of the throat, bacterias can also play the role of culprit here. The most commonly observed bacterial infection is in the form of strep throat. The infection is caused when bacteria of Streptococcus species invade and infect the throat and tonsils (14).
Children are the most common prey to sore throat caused by the bacterial infection. Other bacterial infections that can lead to the sore throat are tonsillitis and sexually transmitted diseases like chlamydia and gonorrhea.
7. Dry air
Dry air is not a medical condition that causes soreness in the throat. It happens when the environment is dry, and the air sucks out the moisture from the throat. When moisture is sucked out of the throat and the mouth, the person feels an itchy and scratchy feeling.
It leads to sore throat, and people commonly face this problem in dry weather like winters when they are exposed to an air heater (15).
8. Allergic reaction
An allergy is a response of the immune system to destroy the foreign particle that has entered into the body. There are a few things that can trigger the allergic response of the immune system like pollen grains, grass, molds, dust, and pet danders.
Once the allergic response gets triggered, the fighter cells of the body release some chemicals to fight them off. These chemicals induce some common symptoms like nasal congestion, sneezing, watery eyes, and sore throat. Excess amounts of mucus production in the nose can cause it to drip back into the throat. This is known as postnasal drip and causes irritation and itchiness in the throat (16).
9. Smoke, chemical, and other irritants
Chemical particles are the most common irritants that cause a sore throat. Both indoor and outdoor pollution acts as a major contributor to the chemical pollutants. Air pollution, smoke from cigarettes and tobacco, and chemicals from cleaning products are some of the common irritants that are known to cause sore throat due to long exposure to them.
There are some other lifestyle habits or activities that can cause irritation and soreness in the throat like chewing tobacco, alcohol consumption, and eating oily and spicy foods (17).
Further Reading: Detox Diet A Complete Guide
10. Neck or throat injury
Any form of injury or cut in the throat can also cause irritation and soreness. While eating, if a piece of food gets stuck in your throat, then forceful gulping can scratch the smooth walls of the throat. The scratching can lead to pain and soreness in the throat.
Another form of neck injury that can cause a sore throat is putting a strain on the vocal cord and throat muscles. Repeated yelling, loud talks, and singing for longer duration can cause strain in the throat muscles, and result in soreness. Singers and people working as instructors and teaches are common prey to sore throat due to strain on vocal muscles.
Further Reading: Best Neck Pain Exercises
11. Gastroesophageal reflux disease
Gastroesophageal reflux disease is an alimentary disorder condition in which the hydrochloric acid from the stomach regurgitates back to the esophagus. The acid burns down the food canal and the throat due to its corrosive nature.
The common symptoms include a feeling of heartburn, hoarseness of voice, the feeling of lump formation in the throat, and acid reflux in the throat. The condition leads to the sore throat as the acid irritates the wall of the throat, leaving it with a scratchy and dry feeling (18) (19).
A sore throat caused due to tumors is a very rare condition observed in patients. When a tumor develops in the voice box, tongue, or throat, it includes a common symptom of sore throat, making the throat itchy and scratchy. The problem with a sore throat due to the tumor is that it does not go away easily, and remains till the tumor persists (20) (21).
13. HIV infection
While it may sound surprising, a sore throat is one of the common symptoms that is observed during the onset of Human Immunodeficiency Virus infection. The first signs of HIV infection in a person are flu-like conditions that are accompanied by a sore throat. Another condition that gives rise to the sore throat in HIV patients is a fungal infection.
Oral thrush is a kind of fungal infection seen in HIV infected patients, and HIV patients who are suffering from a compromised state of immunity fall prey to infection from Cytomegalovirus. This viral infection is also known to cause the itchiness, and scratchy feeling in the throat called sore throat (22).
Symptoms of a sore throat
The first signs that a person notices when suffering from the sore throat are pain, irritation, inflammation, swelling, and scratchiness. The throat hurts when you eat or try to gulp down food and water. The symptoms of sore throat may vary from person to person, depending on the underlying cause that leads to the development of the condition (8). Some of the common symptoms observed are:
- Scratchy sensation accompanied with pain in the throat.
- Pain increases while gulping food and water, as well as while making an attempt to talk.
- Difficulty in swallowing anything, even the saliva.
- The glands around the neck and the jawline swells due to pain and infection.
- The tonsils become red due to inflammation and get enlarged in some cases.
- Dry, raw, and burning sensation in the throat.
- A white patch or pus is often seen in some areas of the throat as a result of viral infection.
- The voice comes out hoarse and muffled due to pain in the throat.
Apart from these, there are some symptoms that accompany sore throat like high temperature, cough, sneezing, headache, body pain, watery nose, nasal congestion, headache, loss of appetite, etc.
Diagnosis of a sore throat
The diagnostic method of a sore throat can be bifurcated into two parts:
A. Physical examination
The first part of a physical examination is to look at the throat, nasal passage, and ears with a torch to see for any signs of redness or inflammation. The area around the neck and the cheeks are slowly probed by hand to detect swelling of lymph nodes and the salivary glands. The last method of physical probing is to hear the breathing with the help of a stethoscope.
B. Throat swab test
Throat swab test is a laboratory diagnostic test to determine whether the cause of sore throat is a bacterial infection or not. In this test, a small portion at the back of the throat is sterilized, and with the help of a fine needle, a sample secretion is taken out for lab testing.
The sample is first tested with an antigen to determine the Streptococcal infection. If it comes negative, then the sample is sent further for a culture test as it is the most reliable method of throat swab test. Another similar test is a molecular test to detect the presence of Streptococcus bacteria in the throat secretion (23).
Home remedies for sore throat
Sore throat, when caused by relatively less serious medical conditions like the common cold, flu, dry air, infection, and irritants, can be easily treated at home with some age-old remedies. Some effective home remedies for a sore throat to soothe the pain and irritation are illustrated below:
Gargling is the most commonly used home remedy to relieve the symptoms of a sore throat like pain, inflammation, swelling, and tenderness. A regular routine of gargling with lukewarm saltwater helps to kill the bacterias that are the causative agents of the infection. It helps to soothe the throat as well as to reduce the chemical secretions acting to stimulate the condition.
Baking soda is also used for gargling to prevent the growth of fungi and yeast that can worsen the condition further. The gargling solution can be made by adding half a teaspoon of water and baking soda in a warm glass of water and then swish it gently around your oral cavity and throat.
2. Herbal tea
Herbal teas are considered as a natural soothing agent that helps to treat sore throat. Teas like chamomile tea and fenugreek tea are known for their anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and astringent properties. Fenugreek is also an antifungal agent that kills bacterias, causing inflammation and irritation in the throat. Chamomile tea helps to stimulate the functions of the immune system (24).
3. Apple cider vinegar
Apple cider vinegar is widely known for its antimicrobial and antibacterial effects on the body. It helps to disintegrate the mucus formation in the throat and thus restricts the bacteria from further spreading the infection. The best way to use apple cider vinegar for sore throat is by diluting a few teaspoons of it with a glass of warm water, and use it for gargling.
Apart from gargling, there are various other methods to use apple cider vinegar for sore throat treatment, but one should consult their physician before using it.
Medical treatment for sore throat
While home remedies are a quite common and handy treatment for sore throat, medications are also available for treatment. Some common medicines used are as follows (please note do not take any medicine before consulting your doctor):
- Antibiotic agents if it is due to bacterial and fungal infection
- Antiviral agent
- Lozenges like Strepsils to soothe the irritation as they increase the production of saliva
- Syrups and linctus containing lubricating agents like honey and glycerine
- Throat sprays are useful when the pain is severe, and it is making gulping difficult. They contain local anesthetics and act on the point of infection. It acts by numbing the pain
- Painkiller agents like ibuprofen and aspirin are useful when the sore throat is accompanied by severe inflammation in the tonsils.