Having a sore throat is very common and is a frequent reason for medical consultation. This symptom is usually linked to an inflammation of this region, usually due to a viral infection, or, more rarely, a bacterial one. Other causes that can explain this painful irritation are allergies, pollution, smoking, acid reflux and others.
From slight tickling, to difficulty swallowing and to a pain as sharp as razor blades, the soreness of the throat can vary in intensity. When it is associated with additional symptoms such as fever or cough, it is likely to be a sign of a more serious ailment.
What is a sore throat?
Sore throat is not a disease but a symptom that can be caused by various reasons. It is an inflammation that can affect various areas around the throat: the tonsils, the pharynx or the larynx. Sometimes it can cause redness or difficulty swallowing.
Locations of the soreness:
Depending on the specific location of the inflammation and therefore of the sore throat, it is given a different name:
- Pharyngitis: it is therefore painful to speak, to swallow, and sometimes even to breathe;
- Laryngitis: the inflammation in the larynx can be more dangerous, as it can cause somewhat serious breathing difficulties;
- Tonsillitis: the pain is more localized and occurs in one or both tonsils, and causes significant difficulty swallowing. The pain may also radiate into the ear;
- Epiglottitis: inflammation of the epiglottis, the pain here is located more on the surface of the throat, where the tonsils are located. It causes severe pain when swallowing and this pain can also radiate into the ear.
Some factors increase the risk of developing a sore throat:
What causes a sore throat?
The vast majority of sore throats are caused by a virus, such as the common cold, the flu, COVID19 or acute nasopharyngitis. These infections usually cause coughing, which irritates the throat.
There are also bacterial causes, especially bacterial angina (Streptococcus). Sore throats of bacterial origin cause more pronounced symptoms, usually with more severe pain, but they are not as common.
Other causes of a sore throat include:
- Irritation from a nasogastric tube.
- Kawasaki disease – a rare condition that affects children under five.
- Some blood disorders, such as leukemia (cancer of the bone marrow) or aplastic anemia (when the bone marrow does not produce enough blood cells).
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), acid reflux can sometimes lead to a sore throat.
- Fatigue (due to a weakened immune system).
- A foreign body, easily identified by context. For example, a sudden feeling of pain when eating fish, which raises the suspicion of a fish bone.
- Dry air (overheated house in winter).
- Tobacco smoke.
- Muscle disorder (From shouting loudly, overusing the voice…).
- Certain diseases: measles, mononucleosis, chickenpox, etc.
- Sleeping with your mouth open or snoring.
- Ingestion of irritants.
- Some STIs (gonorrhea).
- Stress or nervousness.
Symptoms of sore throat
This very common pain is felt more often at the back of the throat.
At the beginning, it may start with a few tingles, then a burning, tearing, sharp sensation at the back of the throat, followed by difficulty swallowing (dysphagia).
Sore throat may be accompanied by other symptoms:
- Redness of the throat.
- Runny nose.
- Difficulty swallowing.
- Spots in the throat.
- A blocked nose and sneezing.
- Enlarged lymph nodes in the neck.
- Bad breath.
- Hoarse voice.
When should you consult a doctor?
Sore throats are usually harmless; they have no serious health consequences. However, it is advisable to consult a doctor without hesitation in the following situations:
- Appearance of a skin eruption or rash.
- Difficulty breathing or chest pain.
- A high-pitched sound while breathing (stridor).
- Inability to swallow or take any fluids.
- If the sore throat lasts for more than a week.
- A sore throat that is very difficult to bear, extremely painful.
- Fever over 100,4°F (38°C).
- Excessive salivation.
- Blood or mucus in the saliva.
- Stiff neck or difficulty opening the mouth.
- Very dark urine.
- Painful joints.
How to prevent a sore throat?
To prevent a sore throat, here are some tips:
- Stop smoking or avoid inhaling tobacco smoke
- Use a humidifier in the house if the air is dry
- Avoid eating foods that are too acidic or too salty so as not to irritate the mucous membrane of the throat
- Cover your neck with a scarf, especially when the season changes
- Take a vitamin cure, this can help you to be more resistant to the outside temperature
- Wash your hands with soap after contact with an infected person or after touching an object handled by them
- Use a handkerchief when sneezing
- Disinfection of transmission surfaces
- Sleep well: a well-rested body defends itself better against infections
A sore throat is diagnosed by examining the medical history and a physical examination of the throat.
If the sore throat is caused by an infection, the doctor will observe redness in the back of the throat on examination. Painful lymph nodes in the neck are often present.
A quick test can be carried out in a few minutes to determine the viral or bacterial origin of the infection.
If the result is positive, antibiotic treatment must be started.
If the test is negative, the origin is viral. The condition therefore does not require antibiotic treatment, which is ineffective against viruses. Symptomatic treatment, aimed at relieving the symptoms, is used.
In the case of chronic symptoms or symptoms with no obvious cause, the doctor may prescribe a throat examination by Fibroscopy.
Treatment of sore throat
There are several treatments for sore throat. The treatment depends on the cause of the ailment.
Sore throats of viral origin usually disappear on their own in 2-3 days. If they persist beyond that, but with no other symptoms (no fever), there is no need to worry as the flu virus can take up to a week to leave the body. Over-the-counter medicine can help relieve the pain and discomfort of a sore throat (Paracetamol, Ibuprofen).
For sore throats, lozenges are often recommended. There are several brands and flavors available. For best relief, choose lozenges that contain an anesthetic, such as benzocaine.
When the sensation of soreness appears, it is widely recommended to take a large dose of vitamin C (up to 1g per day) as well as zinc (4 to 5 zinc lozenges per day for a maximum of 5 days), as they help reduce the duration of symptoms by half.
If the sore throat seems to increase over time and other symptoms appear, it is best to seek medical attention, as bacterial infections may require antibiotic treatment. Bacterial sore throats are often treated with antibiotics.
If your sore throat is due to an allergy, for example to pollen, treatment consists of antihistamines, possibly corticosteroids.
When gastro-esophageal reflux is the cause, hygiene measures should be adopted. There is also medicine that reduces reflux and gastric acidity.
In all other cases, a doctor will try to find out the cause of the sore throat so that it can be treated appropriately.
These methods can help relieve a mild sore throat:
- Gargle with warm salt water (1/2 tsp. salt in 1 cup of water).
- Honey and lemon: this combination in a gargle can relieve throat irritation and reduce coughing while having an antiseptic effect. Honey may reduce mucus and inhibit the reproduction of bacteria in the throat.
- Drink plenty of water and warm drinks to soothe the throat. Warm drinks such as soups and herbal teas (thyme, lavender, marshmallow root) can provide relief and ease the pain.
- Some essential oils, especially tea tree, can relieve sore throats.
- Vitamin C can help boost the immune system and fight infection.
- Garlic: In addition to its many health benefits, garlic may also help fight infection. Dried garlic has powerful antibacterial and antiseptic properties. Garlic can be eaten directly, for example in salads, or as a food supplement.