What Is a Throat Infection and What Can I Do?

Medically Reviewed By Nicole Leigh Aaronson, MD, MBA, CPE, FACS, FAAP
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A throat infection, sometimes called pharyngitis, can be either a bacterial or viral infection. It leads to inflammation of the tissues in the throat and causes redness, pain, and swelling of the structures in the throat. Your throat, or pharynx, is the tube-like structure that carries food to the esophagus and air to your windpipe. Infections of the throat can enter through the mouth or nose. Many of these infections are viral, but others can be caused by bacteria. Streptococcal bacteria are the agents that cause the painful and well-known condition known as strep throat.

Symptoms of throat infection most commonly include pain and a sensation of heat in the throat. The infection may also affect other structures within the throat, particularly the tonsils. Symptoms can range from mild to severe and may include fever, cough, congestion, and other flu-like symptoms, such as body aches. You may also experience swollen lymph nodes in the neck.

If the infection is focused on the tonsils, some clinicians may refer to the infection as tonsillitis.

Read on to learn more about the symptoms, treatment options, and prevention methods of throat infection, including when to contact a doctor.

What are the symptoms of a throat infection?

a person is checking the throat of a young girl for swelling
Sean Locke/Stocksy United

Throat infections with different causes often have similar symptoms. These include:

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.

Learn more about sore throat symptoms and causes here.

When should I contact a doctor for a throat infection?

You should contact your doctor if you:

  • have a fever of above 101°F (38.3°C) for more than 1–2 days
  • have trouble sleeping due to symptoms
  • notice a red rash
  • have white patches at the back of your throat or on your tonsils
  • are having treatment for throat infection, but mild symptoms recur or are persistent
  • feel concerned for any other reason

Emergency medical attention

Seek immediate medical care by calling 911 for serious symptoms, such as:

  • choking or severe difficulty breathing
  • rapid heart rate
  • sudden swelling of the tongue or throat structures
  • change in the level of consciousness or alertness, such as:
    • passing out
    • unresponsiveness
  • sudden change in mental status or behavior, such as:

Learn more about when to contact a doctor for a sore throat here.

What causes a throat infection?

Throat infections are typically the result of a virus or a bacterial infection.

Some conditions that can cause a sore throat include:

Bacterial and viral throat infections are usually contagious.

How do doctors treat a throat infection?

The most important step in treating a throat infection is to practice prevention. However, even with the most conscientious efforts, infections can still occur.

Many throat infections resolve by themselves over time or are usually curable with timely treatment.

If your doctor suspects a throat infection, you will probably receive a throat culture. This involves swabbing the throat for mucus or a fluid sample for laboratory analysis. Your doctor will use this to identify the cause of your infection.

Antibiotics

Antibiotic therapy is the mainstay of treatment for a bacterial infection and is highly effective. It is important to follow your treatment plan precisely and to take all medications as instructed to avoid reinfection or

recurrence.

Examples of antibiotics include penicillin V (Veetids) and amoxicillin (Amoxil).

Pain relievers

Pain relievers can help relieve pain and reduce fever or inflammation. They can come as a spray, lozenge, or liquid to gargle. Examples include:

  • ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin)
  • acetaminophen (Tylenol)
  • certain topical anesthetics
  • lozenges or gargle agents, such as benzocaine (Cepacol, Trocaine, Cylex), which help reduce pain from throat infections by blocking nerve impulses

Surgery

Tonsillitis is a throat infection that has spread to the tonsils. One treatment option for tonsillitis is the surgical removal of the tonsils. This may be useful for infections that do not improve with antibiotics.

Your doctor may recommend a tonsillectomy if you have abscesses of the tonsils that they cannot drain or a foul odor or taste in the mouth that does not improve with antibiotics.

Another surgical option involves draining peritonsillar abscesses. This does not usually require the removal of the tonsils at the same time.

Can I help improve my throat infection symptoms at home?

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

  • avoiding smoke or chemical irritants during recovery
  • drinking plenty of fluids, both warm and cold caffeine-free drinks
  • eating frozen treats to soothe soreness and heat in the throat
  • gargling with salt water
  • getting plenty of rest
  • humidifying air passages with steam
  • resting your voice as much as possible
  • sucking throat lozenges
  • treating pain and fever as directed

Learn more about natural remedies for sore throats here.

What are the risk factors for a throat infection?

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

  • advanced or very young age
  • closed-in work or living spaces
  • exposure to highly populous areas
  • working with children
  • lowered immunity

Can I prevent a throat infection?

Ways you can lower your risk of developing a throat infection include:

  • avoiding sharing food and utensils, cups, or glasses
  • using sanitizing agents on phones, keyboards, remotes, and other shared surfaces
  • ventilating work and living spaces as much as possible
  • washing your hands often

What are the potential complications of a throat infection?

The most common complication is an abscess around the tonsils or at the back of the throat. Complications of an untreated throat infection can be serious.

In rare cases, if you delay treatment over an extended period of time, you could run the risk of sepsis. This occurs if the infection enters the bloodstream.

You can help minimize your risk of serious complications by following the unique treatment plan that you and your healthcare professional design. Complications of a bacterial throat infection include:

  • an abscess around the tonsils or back of the throat
  • blockage of the airway
  • rheumatic fever
  • sepsis, a life threatening bacterial blood infection
  • post-streptococcal glomerulonephritis

Summary

Throat infections are usually the result of a bacterial or viral infection. Causes of throat infections include strep throat, the flu, and mononucleosis.

Throat infections of any type cause similar symptoms, which can include redness and swelling in the throat, and difficulty talking and swallowing.

It is important to seek medical treatment if you have a throat infection. Even though some infections clear up on their own, untreated throat infections can lead to complications such as tonsillitis.

Doctors may prescribe antibiotics or certain pain relievers. You can also add some home-care remedies, such as lozenges, sucking on ice chips, and using a humidifier.

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Medical Reviewer: Nicole Leigh Aaronson, MD, MBA, CPE, FACS, FAAP
Last Review Date: 2022 Mar 31
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