What is a sore throat?
A sore throat is a painful, irritated area in the throat that usually feels worse when you swallow. Your thoat is the tube that connects your mouth to your esophagus and windpipe. The technical name for the throat is pharynx, which explains why a sore throat may also be referred to as pharyngitis, meaning inflammation of the throat.
A sore throat can result from infection (bacterial or viral), allergy, inflammation, trauma, malignancy, airway obstruction, and other abnormal processes. A sore throat can be caused by mild to moderate conditions and can also occur in some serious, even life-threatening conditions.
A sore throat can indicate a relatively mild condition, such as irritation from shouting. A sore throat can be due to moderate conditions, such as influenza (flu), upper respiratory infection, or adenoid disorder. A sore throat can also accompany quite serious conditions, such as airway obstruction, throat trauma, epiglottitis, or tumor of the larynx. A sore throat can also be due to a wide variety of other conditions, including laryngitis, strep throat, allergic reactions, postnasal drip, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), mumps, and infectious mononucleosis.
Depending on the cause, a sore throat can begin suddenly and disappear quickly, such as when it occurs after talking excessively or straining the voice. A chronic sore throat that is ongoing over a long period of time can be caused by smoking or a tumor of the larynx.
If your sore throat is making it too difficult to swallow or you have a high fever, difficulty breathing, or pus in the back of your throat, seek prompt medical care. Other potentially serious symptoms include drooling, a rough rash, and swollen neck lymph nodes. If your sore throat is persistent, recurrent, or causes you concern, see your doctor.
What other symptoms might occur with a sore throat?
Since a sore throat can be due to infection, inflammation, trauma, malignancy, or airway obstruction, there are potential coexisting symptoms.
Common symptoms that may occur along with a sore throat
Sore throat may occur with other symptoms including:
- Pus or white patches covering the tonsils or throat
- Red, inflamed throat
- Runny nose (nasal congestion)
- Swollen neck lymph nodes
Other symptoms that may occur along with a sore throat
Sore throat may accompany other less common symptoms including:
- Abdominal pain (more common in children with strep throat)
- Bad breath
- Joint pain
- Neck tenderness or stiffness
Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition
In some cases, a sore throat may occur with other symptoms that might indicate a serious or life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, are exhibiting any of these life-threatening symptoms:
- Crying inconsolably in infants
- Difficulty breathing
- Difficulty speaking
- High fever (higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit)
- Severe headache
- Severe pain upon swallowing
What causes a sore throat?
Many types of infections, inflammatory disorders, and conditions can lead to a sore throat. More common infections include the common cold, flu, and strep throat. Rheumatoid arthritis and other inflammatory conditions can also present with a sore throat. Because there are so many different possibilities, some of which are life threatening, it is important to contact your doctor to address your concerns and answer your questions.
Common infectious causes of a sore throat
Sore throat is a sign of some common viral and bacterial infections including:
- Acute HIV infection
- Common cold (viral respiratory infection)
- Croup (viral illness)
- Infectious mononucleosis
- Influenza (flu)
- Rhinosinusitis (postnasal drip)
- Strep throat
- Viral pharyngitis (throat inflammation)
Other potential infectious causes of a sore throat
A variety of other infections that can cause a sore throat include:
- Ear infection
- Fungal infection
- Herpes virus infection
- HIV infection (sore throat is an early symptom)
- Sinus infection
- Whooping cough (pertussis)
Other inflammatory and malignant causes of a sore throat
Other causes of a sore throat include inflammatory and malignant conditions:
- Acid reflux or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
- Chronic fatigue syndrome
- Dry throat (possibly from breathing through the mouth)
- Epiglottitis (inflammation of the epiglottis between throat and windpipe)
- Esophageal conditions (cancer or rupture)
- Foreign body
- Radiation treatment for head and neck cancer
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Tumor of the larynx
Serious or life-threatening causes of sore throat
In some cases, sore throat may be a symptom of a serious or life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. These include:
- Cancers of the throat and esophagus
- Epiglottitis (life-threatening inflammation and swelling of the epiglottis, a tissue flap between the tongue and windpipe)
- Toxic chemical exposure
Questions for diagnosing the cause of a sore throat
To diagnose the cause of your sore throat, a licensed health care practitioner will most likely ask you questions related to your symptoms, including:
- How long have you had a sore throat?
- Do you have a cough?
- Are you breathing through your mouth (instead of your nose)?
- Do you have any other symptoms?
What are the potential complications of a sore throat?
A sore throat can be a sign of an infectious or inflammatory process, many of which can be treated without serious difficulties. Some conditions can be easily treated with self-care measures at home, such as moist air and anti-inflammatory medications, or with antibiotics prescribed by your health care provider. Other cases of sore throat may require more intensive treatment. Over time, a sore throat can lead to complications including:
- Abscess formation
- Dehydration due to reduced fluid intake
- Diminished overall quality of life
- Inability to swallow
- Rheumatic fever (complication of strep throat)
- Spread of cancer
- Spread of infection