White Patches in the Throat: Medical Causes

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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What are throat white patches?

White patches at the back of your throat or on your tonsils can be signs of infection. Usually these patches are irritating or painful, and sometimes the pain is worse with swallowing or on coming into contact with acidic foods. In addition to infection, sometimes these white patches can be a result of an injury from chemical exposures.

Most commonly, throat white patches will be accompanied by a sore throat and other symptoms, such as a cough, runny nose, fever, nasal congestion, sinus pain or pressure, body aches and pains, or problems with swallowing and eating.

A common bacterial infection that may result in white patches in the throat is strep throat, an infection caused by Streptococcus bacteria. Strep throat is a common and contagious illness that results in a tender and painful sore throat accompanied by fever and other symptoms. Similarly, infectious mononucleosis is a common viral infection that may result in throat white patches.

Leukoplakia is the term for a precancerous condition that most often occurs on the tongue or lining of the cheek. This condition also appears as white patches inside the mouth and is caused by chronic irritation rather than infection.

White patches caused by an infectious disease will usually require the full course of medical treatment of the causative disorder before the patches themselves disappear. Seek prompt medical care if you have white patches at the back of your throat or on your tonsils, so that you can begin treatment.

While these patches in themselves are not life threatening, complications of the related throat infection can be. 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 and delusions.

What other symptoms might occur with throat white patches?

White throat patches may accompany other symptoms, which will vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. Symptoms that frequently affect the upper respiratory tract may also involve other body systems.

Respiratory symptoms that may occur along with throat white patches

White throat patches may accompany other symptoms affecting the respiratory system including:

  • Cough; possibly coughing up clear, yellow, light brown, or green mucus
  • Difficulty breathing (ranging from mild to severe)
  • Dry throat
  • Hoarseness
  • Pus on the tonsils or throat
  • Sore throat

Other symptoms that may occur along with throat white patches

White patches in the throat may accompany symptoms related to other body systems, such as the immune system or gastrointestinal system. Other symptoms may include:

Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition

In some cases, white throat patches may be a symptom of a 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, have white throat patches along with other serious symptoms including:

  • Change in level of consciousness or alertness
  • Choking
  • Confusion or loss of consciousness, even for a brief moment
  • Fainting or change in level of consciousness or lethargy
  • High fever (higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit)
  • Severe difficulty breathing, which may be combined with pale or blue lips and fast heart rate
  • Severe pain
  • Sudden swelling of the tongue or throat structures
  • Vomiting

What causes throat white patches?

White patches at the back of your throat or on your tonsils are usually signs of infection, particularly strep throat, tonsillitis, or mononucleosis; they are sometimes associated with a syphilitic infection. In addition to infection, sometimes these white patches can be a result of an injury from a chemical injury to the throat.

Infectious causes of throat white patches

White throat patches may be caused by several infectious disorders including:

Other causes of throat white patches

In some cases, chemical exposures or chronic irritation can produce throat white patches. Examples include:

  • Chemical injury
  • Leukoplakia (potentially precancerous white areas inside the mouth resulting from chronic irritation)

Serious or life-threatening causes of throat white patches

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

  • Abscess (collection of pus) around the tonsils or back of the throat
  • Blockage of the airway
  • Toxic chemical exposure

Questions for diagnosing the cause of throat white patches

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

  • How long have you had white patches in your throat?
  • Are they painful? Have you seen any pus?
  • Have you had a cough?
  • If you are coughing up mucus, what color is it? Clear, yellow, light brown, or green?
  • Are you having any difficulty breathing? Any congestion?
  • Are you having difficulty swallowing?
  • Have the glands in your neck felt swollen or tender to the touch?
  • Have you experienced any fever or chills?
  • Do you have any other symptoms?
  • What medications are you taking?
  • Have you been exposed to any chemicals or fumes?

What are the potential complications of throat white patches?

Because white throat patches can be due to any of several 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:

  • Rheumatic fever (a complication of strep throat)
  • Sepsis (life-threatening bacterial blood infection)
  • Severe difficulty breathing, which may be combined with pale or blue lips, fast heart rate, and anxiety
  • Sudden swelling of the tongue or throat structures
  • Vomiting
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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Dec 13
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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.
  1. Throat problems. FamilyDoctor.org. http://familydoctor.org/familydoctor/en/health-tools/search-by-symptom/throat-problems.html
  2. Streptococcal infections. Medline Plus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/streptococcalinfections.html