What is burning throat?
Burning throat is a hot or fiery feeling in your throat—or pharynx. The throat has three areas:
- Nasopharynx, which lies behind the nasal cavity and extends down to the uvula
- Oropharynx, which is the portion at the back of the mouth
- Laryngopharynx, which connects to the oropharynx at the top and larynx—or voice box—at the bottom
The throat houses the top of both the respiratory system and the digestive tract. The nasopharynx serves the respiratory system, the oropharynx handles both systems, and the larynx is where the two systems split. The digestive system leaves the larynx via the esophagus and the respiratory system exits via the trachea.
A burning throat sensation can result from irritation or inflammation anywhere in the throat. It can affect the top of the throat, at the back of the nose and mouth, or happen deeper in the larynx. Conditions affecting either the respiratory system or the digestive tract can be the cause of the discomfort.
The location of the burning can be a clue to the underlying cause. Burning at the back of the mouth can be a sign of irritation from a viral or bacterial infection. Over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers and lozenges can help relieve this type of discomfort. But antibiotics will be necessary to treat a bacterial infection. When the problem is lower in the throat, it could be burning throat from acid reflux from the stomach. Antacids and other OTC heartburn remedies can ease occasional bouts of sour stomach. Recurrent problems may require prescription medicines.
Most causes of burning in throat aren’t serious and don’t require emergency care. However, you shouldn’t ignore throat discomfort that persists or worsens. Seek prompt medical care if you have a sore throat or burning throat with a fever that lasts for more than a couple of days. Make an appointment to see your doctor if you feel burning in the throat without any other symptoms.
Seek immediate medical care if a child has a sore throat or burning throat and has difficulty breathing or swallowing or is drooling abnormally.
What other symptoms might occur with burning throat?
Depending on the underlying cause, burning throat can occur with other symptoms.
Digestive-related symptoms that may occur along with burning throat
The sensation of burning in the throat may accompany other symptoms affecting the digestive tract including:
- Frequent heartburn or indigestion
- Swallowing problems, throat tightness, choking, or feeling like there is a lump in the throat
- Tasting stomach contents or sour liquid in the back of the throat or mouth
Respiratory-related symptoms that may occur along with burning throat
Burning throat may also accompany other symptoms affecting the respiratory system including:
- New or worsening asthma or breathing problems
- Pain with swallowing or throat scratchiness
- Sneezing or runny or stuffy nose
- Swollen, red tonsils or white patches on the tonsils
Other symptoms that may occur along with burning throat
Other symptoms can occur outside the digestive and respiratory systems with burning throat including:
- General discomfort in the chest area
- Sleep problems, including interrupted sleep
Symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening or serious condition
Sometimes, burning throat may occur with other symptoms that might indicate a more serious condition. Seek prompt medical care if you have a severe sore throat, it lasts for longer than a couple of days, it recurs frequently, or you have any of these symptoms:
- Coughing or spitting blood
- Difficulty breathing, swallowing, or opening your mouth
- High fever (higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit)
- Rash or joint pain
In some cases, burning throat may occur with other symptoms that might indicate a serious or life-threatening condition that requires immediate evaluation in an emergency setting. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if a child has a sore or burning throat along with trouble breathing or swallowing or unusual drooling.
What causes burning throat?
Burning throat or throat pain usually originates from conditions in either the digestive tract or the respiratory system.
Digestive causes of burning throat
Burning throat may arise from problems in the digestive tract including:
- GERD (gastrointestinal reflux disease)
- Occasional heartburn from lifestyle habits, such as overeating and consumption of alcohol or fatty, greasy or spicy foods
- Peptic ulcer disease
Respiratory causes of burning throat
Burning throat may arise from problems in the respiratory system including:
- Bacterial infections, such as strep throat
Other causes of burning throat
Burning throat can also be caused by conditions that can lead to heartburn including:
- Overweight and obesity
Serious or life-threatening causes of burning throat
In some cases, burning throat may be a symptom of a serious or potentially life-threatening condition including:
- Tumors of the tongue, throat or larynx
How is burning throat treated?
Because burning throat is a symptom, treatment depends on the underlying cause. In many cases, it’s a sign of a viral infection. Sore throat and burning throat remedies include taking OTC pain relievers, sucking on throat lozenges, and gargling with salt water. Do not use aspirin in children or teenagers for viral infections due to the risk of Reye’s syndrome. Use acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) instead.
You can also manage burning throat due to occasional heartburn or allergies with OTC remedies. This includes antacids, H2 blockers, such as famotidine (Pepcid AC), or PPIs (proton pump inhibitors), such as omeprazole (Prilosec OTC) for heartburn. OTC antihistamines can help with allergies.
For other causes of burning throat, your doctor may need to prescribe medications.
What are the potential complications of burning throat?
Like treatments, the potential complications of burning throat depend entirely on the underlying cause. Because burning throat can be due to serious diseases, failure to seek treatment can result in serious complications. Once you know the underlying cause, it is important to follow the treatment plan to reduce the risk of potential complications including:
- Barrett’s esophagus, which is a precancerous condition
- Esophageal cancer metastasis—or spread
- Esophageal ulcers or stricture, which is a narrowing of the esophagus
- Reactive arthritis and kidney inflammation following strep throat