Throat Clearing

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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What is throat clearing?

Throat clearing is an instinctive attempt to remove an irritant in the throat by consciously or unconsciously vibrating the muscles in your throat, especially your voice box (larynx). Throat clearing is something everyone does once in a while. It becomes a symptom of a medical problem only when it is a response to persistent irritation or discomfort in the throat.

Sensations that induce throat clearing may take the form of minor pain, an itchy feeling, or a feeling of something stuck in the throat. This discomfort may be specific to a structure within the throat, such as your tonsils or voice box (larynx), or the back of the tongue.

Conditions that can cause throat clearing include a nervous tic, an infectious disease of the throat, a recent injury to the throat, or a noninfectious condition.

Throat clearing, in itself, is not life threatening and may resolve on its own. However, if the discomfort that causes you to keep clearing your throat lasts more than a week or two, and if it is accompanied by other symptoms, you should contact a medical professional to identify the cause. Seek prompt medical care if you have a persistent lump at the back of your tongue or in your throat; a raised, scaly, or thickened area on the back of the tongue or in your throat; white patches on your tonsils; a persistent cough; or a persistent fever.

What other symptoms might occur with throat clearing?

Throat clearing may accompany other symptoms, which will vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. Symptoms that frequently affect the throat may also involve other body systems.

Throat symptoms that may occur along with throat clearing

Throat clearing may accompany other symptoms affecting the throat including:

  • Cough
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Dry throat
  • Enlarged lymph nodes
  • Feeling of something stuck in the throat
  • Frequent urge to swallow
  • Hoarse voice
  • Neck pain
  • Pus or white patches covering the tonsils or throat

Other symptoms that may occur along with throat clearing

Throat clearing may accompany symptoms related to other body systems. Such symptoms include:

Symptoms that might indicate a serious condition

In some cases, throat clearing may occur with other symptoms that might indicate a serious condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. Seek prompt medical care if you, or someone you are with, feel a need to continually clear the throat along with other serious symptoms including:

  • Fever

  • Persistent cough

  • Persistent lump at the back of your tongue or in your throat

  • Pus or white patches covering the tonsils or throat

  • Raised, scaly, or thickened area on the back of the tongue or in your throat

  • Unexplained weight loss

What causes throat clearing?

Conditions that cause throat clearing can include an infectious disease, scar tissue or irritated tissue from a recent injury to the throat or an injury that is healing, an obstruction, or a noninfectious condition.

Infectious causes of throat clearing

Throat clearing may be caused by infectious disorders including:

Irritant and injury-related causes of throat clearing

In some cases, throat clearing may be a symptom of an injury to the throat. These include damage to the tissues of the throat from:

  • Chemical exposure
  • Excessive coughing
  • Excessive vomiting
  • Gastro-esophageal reflux disease (GERD)
  • Obstruction
  • Pollution
  • Tobacco use
  • Voice strain

Other causes of throat clearing

Throat clearing may sometimes be caused by other conditions, including tics (repetitive, stereotyped movements or vocalizations).

Serious or life-threatening causes of throat clearing

In some cases, throat clearing may be a symptom of a serious or life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. These include:

Questions for diagnosing the cause of throat clearing

To diagnose your condition, your doctor or licensed health care practitioner will ask you several questions related to your throat clearing including:

  • How long have you been clearing your throat?
  • Have you had a cough? If you are coughing up mucus, what color is it?
  • Are you having any difficulty breathing?
  • Are you having difficulty swallowing?
  • Have the glands in your neck felt swollen or tender to the touch?
  • Have you experienced fever or chills?
  • Have you noticed any white patches or pus in your throat?
  • Have you been vomiting recently?
  • Do you ever experience gastric reflux?
  • What medications are you taking?
  • Have you been exposed to any chemicals or fumes?
  • Do you have any other symptoms?

What are the potential complications of throat clearing?

Throat clearing is not typically associated with serious complications, but it can disrupt your life. In some cases, when it is accompanied by other symptoms, throat clearing can be due to serious diseases; failure to seek treatment can result in serious complications and permanent damage. Once the underlying cause is diagnosed, it is important for you to follow the treatment plan that you and your health care professional design specifically for you to reduce the risk of potential complications including:

  • Adverse effects of treatment
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Rheumatic fever (complication of strep throat)
  • Spread of cancer
  • Spread of infection
  • Symptom progression of underlying condition
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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Jan 9
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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