Throat Symptoms

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS

What are the signs of throat problems?

Symptoms of the throat, or pharynx, include a variety of abnormal or unusual sensations or problems of the throat. Your throat is a tube that begins at the back of the mouth and transports air to your trachea (windpipe) and larynx (voice box). The throat also delivers food to the esophagus, which is connected to the stomach. In addition, the throat contains the epiglottis, which prevents the inhalation of food into the windpipe; and the hyoid bone, which serves as an anchor point for the tongue.

Throat symptoms can vary greatly in character and severity depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. Common throat symptoms include:

Depending on the cause, throat symptoms can last briefly and disappear relatively quickly, such as when symptoms develop during the common cold. Throat symptoms can also recur over a longer period of time, such as when symptoms are caused by throat cancer.

While some throat symptoms are minor and may go away on their own over time, certain underlying causes of throat symptoms can be serious or life threatening. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, are choking or have difficulty breathing; a change in alertness; or swelling of the throat, lips, mouth or face.

What other symptoms might occur with throat symptoms?

Throat symptoms may accompany other symptoms in other body systems or areas. Additional symptoms can vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition, such as with infections, allergies, and certain digestive diseases, including gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).

Symptoms of infection that can occur with throat symptoms

Infectious diseases, such as the common cold, flu, strep throat, and sinusitis, can cause other symptoms that occur with throat symptoms including:

Symptoms of allergies that can occur with throat symptoms

Allergies can cause other symptoms that occur with throat symptoms including:

Symptoms of digestive conditions that can occur with throat symptoms

Certain conditions of the digestive system, such as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) and heartburn, can cause symptoms that may occur with throat symptoms, such as sore throat and burning in the throat. Symptoms related to digestive disorders may include:

  • Chronic cough

  • Heartburn

  • Indigestion

  • Pain in the middle of the chest or stomach

  • Sour taste in the mouth

Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition

Some throat symptoms, such as throat swelling, choking, difficulty swallowing, or an inability to swallow are potentially life threatening. In addition, throat symptoms may occur with other symptoms that might indicate a serious or life-threatening condition. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of the following symptoms:

  • Bluish discoloration of the lips, nails, and possibly the skin

  • Difficulty or inability to speak

  • High fever (higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit)

  • Shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, wheezing, gasping, choking, or stridor (a high-pitched breathing sound)

  • Swelling of the throat, tongue, lips, mouth or face

  • Unexplained change in level of consciousness or alertness

What causes throat symptoms?

Throat symptoms may be caused by a wide array of conditions, including infectious diseases, allergies, and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), in which stomach acid backs up into the esophagus. Certain types of head and neck cancers may also cause throat symptoms that include difficulty swallowing, sore throat, and the development of throat growths or sores.

Infectious causes of throat symptoms

Throat symptoms can be caused by a variety of infectious diseases including:

  • Chickenpox

  • Common cold (viral respiratory infection)

  • Croup (viral illness)

  • HIV

  • Influenza (flu)

  • Mononucleosis

  • Pharyngitis (inflammation of the throat often caused by an infection)

  • Strep throat (streptococcal bacteria infection characterized by a sore, red throat and occasionally white spots on the tonsils)

  • Tonsillitis (inflammation of the tonsils often caused by an infection)

Other causes of throat symptoms

Other causes of throat symptoms include environmental factors, allergies, and digestive system conditions:

  • Allergies, including hay fever and rhinitis

  • Dry air

  • Foreign body

  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD, a condition in which stomach acid backs up into the esophagus)

  • Head and neck cancers

  • Postnasal drip

  • Smoking and air pollution

Life-threatening causes of throat symptoms

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

What are the potential complications of throat symptoms?  

Because throat symptoms can be due to serious diseases, failure to seek treatment may result in serious complications and permanent damage. Once the underlying cause is diagnosed, it is important for you to follow the treatment plan you and your health care professional design specifically for you to reduce the risk of potential complications including:  

  • Altered voice

  • Anaphylaxis (life-threatening allergic reaction)

  • Chronic tonsillitis (persistent inflammation of the tonsils generally due to infection)

  • Complications of strep throat, such as acute glomerulonephritis (inflammation of the kidneys that can lead to kidney damage
    and kidney failure), middle ear infection (otitis media), and rheumatic fever

  • Long-term damage to the esophagus, including narrowing, erosion, ulcers, and precancerous changes caused by gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).

  • Organ damage

  • Respiratory arrest

  • Spread of cancer (metastasis)

  • Spread of infection

Was this helpful?
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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Jan 7
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