Throat Infection

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Introduction

What is throat infection?

A throat infection, sometimes called pharyngitis, can be either a bacterial or a viral infection leading to inflammation of the tissues of the throat that causes redness, pain and swelling of the walls or structures of the throat.

Your throat, or pharynx, is the tube-like structure that carries both food to the esophagus and air to your windpipe (called the larynx). Infective agents of the throat most often enter through the mouth or nose. Many of these infections are viral; others can be caused by bacteria (such as Streptococcus pyogenes, or group A Streptococcus). 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 or pharynx. The infection may also affect other structures within the throat, in particular the tonsils (when it is referred to as tonsillitis). Symptoms can range from mild to severe and may or may not be accompanied by fever, cough, congestion, and other flu-like symptoms such as body aches. You may also experience swollen lymph nodes in the neck.

Most throat infections, particularly those due to viruses, clear up on their own, while certain bacterial infections are easily treated with antibiotics.

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, rapid heart rate (tachycardia), and anxiety; high fever (higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit); sudden swelling of the tongue or throat structures; change in level of consciousness or alertness, such as passing out or unresponsiveness; or a change in mental status or sudden behavior change, such as confusion, delirium, lethargy, hallucinations or delusions.

You may also have less serious symptoms or conditions that should still be evaluated. Seek prompt medical care if you have white patches at the back of your throat or on your tonsils, if you are being treated for throat infection but mild symptoms recur or are persistent, or if you have other concerns.

Symptoms

What are the symptoms of throat infection?

You may experience throat infection symptoms for several weeks at a time. It is important to remember that if these symptoms subside during treatment of a bacterial throat infection, it does not mean that the infection is gone: you should continue to take your medication as directed. If any of these symptoms become severe, if it becomes difficult to breathe, or if your fever exceeds 101 degrees Fahrenheit, seek medical attention.

Common symptoms of throat infection

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 throat infection include:

Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition

Left untreated, throat infection can, in a limited number of cases, become life threatening if the airway is cut off or if the infection spreads into the bloodstream and leads to rheumatic fever or sepsis (a life-threatening bacterial blood infection). Seek prompt medical care if you develop pus or white patches on your tonsils or at the back of your throat. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of these life-threatening symptoms including:

  • Change in level of consciousness or alertness

  • Choking

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

  • Fainting or change in level of consciousness, lethargy

  • High fever (higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit)

  • Joint pain or jerky movements

  • Severe difficulty breathing, which may be combined with pale or blue lips and rapid heart rate (tachycardia)

  • Severe pain

  • Sudden swelling of the tongue or throat structures

Causes

What causes throat infection?

Throat infections are typically caused by a virus or by bacterial infection (e.g., strep throat). Examples of viral causes of sore throat include the flu (influenza) and infectious mononucleosis. Bacterial and viral throat infections are usually contagious.

What are the risk factors for throat infection?

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

  • Advanced or very young age
  • Closed-in work or living spaces
  • Exposure to highly populous areas
  • Lowered immunity

Reducing your risk of throat infection

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

  • Avoiding sharing food and eating utensils, cups, and 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
Treatments

How is throat infection treated?

The most important step in treating throat infection is to practice prevention. However, even with the most conscientious efforts, infections can still occur. Fortunately, many throat infections resolve by themselves over time or are usually curable with timely treatment with antibiotics such as amoxicillin or penicillin and, if needed, fever-reducing agents.

If your doctor suspects infection, you will probably be given a throat culture (swabbing the throat for mucus or fluid sample for laboratory analysis) to identify the cause of your infection. 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.

Antibiotics used to treat throat infection

Antibiotics are the mainstay treatment for bacterial throat infections like strep throat and are used primarily to prevent rare but more serious complications like rheumatic fever. Examples include:

  • Penicillin V (Veetids)

  • Amoxicillin (Amoxil)

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

  • Ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin)

  • Acetaminophen (Tylenol)

  • Topical anesthetics used to treat throat infection

  • Lozenges or gargle agents such as benzocain (Cepacol, Trocaine, Cylex) help reduce pain from throat infections by blocking nerve impulses.

What you can do to improve your throat infection

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 iced pop 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

What are the potential complications of throat infection?

The most common complication is an abscess (infected sore) around the tonsils or at the back of the throat. Complications of untreated throat infection can be serious, occurring more frequently in infants, older adults, and individuals whose immunity is already compromised. In rare cases, if treatment is neglected over an extended period of time, you could run the risk of sepsis (life-threatening bacterial blood infection) if the infection enters the bloodstream.

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 throat infection include:

  • Abscess (collection of pus) around the tonsils or back of the throat

  • Blockage of the airway

  • Rheumatic fever

  • Sepsis (life-threatening bacterial blood infection)

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2018 Nov 5
  1. Strep throat. Medline Plus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/000639.htm
  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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