A scratchy, irritating, painful feeling in your throat that often worsens when you swallow is known as a sore throat. It is also commonly known as pharyngitis (inflammation of the back part of your throat (pharynx)). 

Usually, sore throat occurs as a result of a viral infection, and like all virals, they run their course and go away (within 3 to 10 days). A sore throat is fortunately short-lasting and temporary but sometimes if it persists, there may be an underlying cause and you may need to consult a doctor. 

Causes of Sore Throat

1. Allergy. Throat irritation is quite often caused by an allergy to something in the environment (like dust, pollen, pollutants, smoke) or to foods like spicy food, cold drinks, etc. 

2. Viruses. There are many viruses that cause a sore throat. Viral sore throats last for a short while and are usually self-limiting. Some viruses that cause sore throats are Rhinovirus, Influenza virus, Epstein-Barr virus, etc.

3. Bacteria. Streptococcus, Staphylococcus, Haemophilus are the commonest bacteria implicated in acute bacterial pharyngitis or tonsillitis (inflammation of tonsils). Tonsils are a pair of round, red balls at the back of your throat, on each side, whose primary responsibility is to act as the body's first line of defense.

4. Fungal Infections. Usually in immune-compromised patients (people with a weak immune system; when the body has decreased ability to fight against infections) and in those who take steroid inhalers, are at more risk for fungal infections. The infection is usually caused by the fungus, Candida

Long-term use of steroids may weaken your immune system and hence you become more prone to infections. 

5. Acidity and Reflux. One of the commonest causes of sore throat is acid reflux disease. This is the sensation of the stomach acid backing up into your throat or food pipe. 

Acid reflux occurs mostly at night and can be the result of a sedentary (inactive) and stressful lifestyle. 

6. Cancer. Throat cancers are amongst the commonest cancers in India. The causes of cancers are mostly due to the use of tobacco, bad oral hygiene, alcohol intake, sharp and carious teeth, etc.  

Risk Factors of Sore Throat

Anyone can have a sore throat but some factors can easily make you susceptible to it. Such factors include:

  • Age. Children below 15 years or elderly people above 50 years are more prone to sore throat because of their low immunity power.

  • Exposure to allergies, smoke, tobacco, and chemical irritants like fossil fuels. If you are exposed to any of these, it can irritate the throat, causing a sore throat.

  • Weak immunity conditions. Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), stress, poor diet, diabetes (high blood sugar levels) can weaken your immune system, making you more prone to infections.

  • Close contact. Sore throat is a contagious infection. If you are in close contact with a person who has a sore throat, there are high chances that you also will be infected. 

Symptoms of Sore Throat

Depending upon the cause of sore throat, signs and symptoms include:

  • Hawking (a desire to clean the throat)

  • Pain or a scratchy sensation in the throat

  • A sensation like some foreign body has entered the throat

  • Globus sensation (feeling a lump like substance in the throat)

  • Cough 

  • Difficulty in swallowing

  • Hoarse voice

  • Postnasal drip (nasal secretion which runs down to throat)

  • Excessive saliva/mucus (a stringy fluid that protects your respiratory system with lubrication and filtration) in the throat

  • Swollen tonsils 

Diagnosis of Sore Throat

1. Physical examination. Your doctor will take you or your child’s history and will palpate (gently feel) your neck for any swelling in the neck region and also ask you to open your mouth wide to check for enlarged tonsils to rule out tonsillitis.

2. Throat swab. This is the most effective test to confirm if the causative organism is Streptococcus bacteria. The doctor will run a sterile swab over the back of your throat to get a sample of the secretions and the sample is sent to the lab for testing. 

The results of a rapid antigen test are obtained in a few minutes but a throat culture report takes about 24 to 48 hours. 

Treatment of Sore Throat

  • If your sore throat is because of a virus, then it may last for about 5 to 7 days and that doesn't require any medical treatment. If you have severe pain or fever, then you can go for over-the-counter (OTC) medications.

  • For cough, lozenges or cough syrup can be taken.

  • If your sore throat is caused by bacteria then, antibiotics are prescribed and if caused by a fungus, antifungals are prescribed.                                   

Home Remedies for Sore Throat

1. Avoid a heavy meal at night. The last meal should be at least 2 hours before you go to bed. This way you will be free from acidity problems.

2. Avoid spicy and fried foods and do not drink ice-cold water or aerated drinks as such foods can irritate your throat and cause sore throat.

3. Avoid smoking.

4. Maintain good hygiene, wear a mask and keep a safe distance (2 metres) from a person who has a cold and cough.

5. Gargle with salt water. This can help soothe your sore throat. Mix about half a teaspoon of table salt into a cup of warm lukewarm water and gargle and spit it out.

6. Take plenty of rest and try giving rest to your voice.

When to Seek Medical Help?

Consult your doctor immediately if:

  • Your sore throat does not resolve by 5 days after taking medication and if persistent pain is present in your throat which is localized to one area.

  • Your sore throat is associated with swelling in your neck.

  • You are coughing up blood-stained mucus .

  • You have pain radiating to the ear.

A sore throat usually resolves on its own within a few days. Antibiotics are prescribed if your sore throat is caused by bacteria. If your symptoms do not subside and become severe and prolonged, it's advisable to consult your doctor immediately.

Disclaimer: This article is written by the Practitioner for informational and educational purposes only. The content presented on this page should not be considered as a substitute for medical expertise. Please "DO NOT SELF-MEDICATE" and seek professional help regarding any health conditions or concerns. Practo will not be responsible for any act or omission arising from the interpretation of the content present on this page.