Pharyngitis

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Introduction

What is pharyngitis?

Pharyngitis is an inflammation of the throat (also known as the pharynx) often caused by a bacterial or viral infection. The main symptom is a sore throat; other symptoms may include fever, cough, congestion, body aches, and swollen lymph nodes in the neck. Theses symptoms can range from mild to severe.

While many germs can cause pharyngitis, including bacteria (such as group A Streptococcus, which causes strep throat) and many types of viruses, pharyngitis can also result from allergies, voice strain, and gastric reflux, a condition in which stomach acids flow up into the throat.

Most episodes of pharyngitis resolve with treatment, and some minor inflammations even go away on their own. However, left untreated, infection can enter the bloodstream and cause sepsis, which is a life-threatening condition.

Seek immediate medical care (call 911) for serious symptoms such as choking or severe difficulty breathing, which may be combined with pale or blue lips and fast heart rate (tachycardia), high fever (higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit), sudden swelling of the tongue or throat structures, change in level of consciousness or alertness, or a change in mental status or sudden behavior change (confusion, delirium, lethargy, hallucinations and delusions).

Seek prompt medical care if you can see white patches at the back of your mouth, if you have a persistent or mucus-producing cough with sore throat, if you have white patches on your tongue or in your mouth that will not go away, or if you are being treated for pharyngitis but mild symptoms recur or are persistent.

Symptoms

What are the symptoms of pharyngitis?

You may experience pharyngitis symptoms for several weeks at a time, and symptoms can recur.

Common symptoms of pharyngitis

You may or may not experience all of these symptoms, depending on the cause or extent of the infection. At times, any of these symptoms can become severe. Common symptoms of pharyngitis include:

Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition

Left untreated, pharyngitis can, in rare cases, lead to rheumatic fever or sepsis (bacterial blood infection), which are life-threatening conditions. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of these life-threatening symptoms:

  • Change in level of consciousness or alertness, such as passing out or unresponsiveness

  • Confusion or loss of consciousness, even for a brief moment

  • High fever (higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit)

  • Joint pain or jerky movements

  • Rapid heart rate (tachycardia)

  • Respiratory or breathing problems, such as shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, labored breathing, wheezing, not breathing, choking

  • Severe pain

  • Sudden swelling of the tongue or throat

Causes

What causes pharyngitis?

In most cases, pharyngitis is caused by viral infections, such as influenza (flu) and mononucleosis. However, it can also be the result of a bacterial infection such as strep throat, an allergic reaction, or gastric reflux. Pharyngitis can also develop from an environmental irritant or injury. Bacterial and viral pharyngitis are usually contagious. If you have lowered immunity, as in the case of HIV infection, you may be more susceptible to infections that lead to pharyngitis.

What are the risk factors for pharyngitis?

A number of factors increase the risk of developing pharyngitis. Not all people with risk factors will get pharyngitis. Risk factors for pharyngitis include:

  • Advanced or very young age
  • Closed-in work or living spaces
  • Exposure to chemical irritants
  • Exposure to highly populous areas
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
  • Lowered immunity

Reducing your risk of pharyngitis

You can lower your risk for developing or transmitting pharyngitis to others by:

  • Avoiding contact with tobacco and chemical irritants
  • Avoiding sharing food and eating utensils, cups, and glasses
  • Treating any allergies conscientiously
  • Using sanitizing agents on shared surfaces
  • Ventilating work and living spaces as much as possible
  • Washing your hands frequently
Treatments

How is pharyngitis treated?

Fortunately, most cases of pharyngitis go away on their own or are treatable with antibiotics, analgesics, or topical anesthetics. When taking antibiotics, it is important to follow your treatment plan precisely and to take all medications as instructed to avoid reinfection and recurrence.

Antibiotics used to treat pharyngitis

Antibiotics can be used to treat pharyngitis caused by bacterial infections. Antibiotics are used primarily to prevent rare but more serious complications like rheumatic fever. Examples include:

  • Amoxicillin (Amoxil)
  • Penicillin V (Veetids)

Analgesics used to treat pharyngitis

Analgesics can be used to relieve pain and reduce fever or inflammation. Examples include:

  • Acetaminophen (Tylenol)
  • Ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin)

Topical pain relievers used to treat pharyngitis

Topical pain relievers such as benzocaine, available in cough drops and throat sprays (Cepacol, Trocaine, Cylex), help reduce pain from pharyngitis by blocking nerve impulses.

What you can do to improve your pharyngitis

In addition to carefully following your medication regimen, you can also limit some pharyngitis symptoms by:

  • Avoiding smoke or chemical irritants during recovery
  • Drinking plenty of fluids, both warm and cold caffeine-free drinks
  • Eating popsicles to soothe soreness and heat in the throat
  • Gargling with salt water
  • Getting plenty of rest
  • Humidifying air passages with steam
  • Resting your voice
  • Sucking throat lozenges

What are the potential complications of pharyngitis?

Complications of untreated pharyngitis can be serious, even life threatening in some cases. You can help minimize your risk of serious complications by following the treatment plan you and your health care professional design specifically for you. Complications of pharyngitis include:

  • Abscess around the tonsils or in the back of the throat
  • Blockage of the airway
  • Rheumatic fever (complication of strep throat)
  • Sepsis (life-threatening bacterial blood infection)
  • Spread of infection
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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2019 Jan 4
  1. Throat problems. FamilyDoctor.org. http://familydoctor.org/familydoctor/en/health-tools/search-by-symptom/throat-problems.html.
  2. Sore throat. Medline Plus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/sorethroat.html.
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