We are all familiar with that uncomfortable, painful or scratchy feeling at the throat. That very feeling may even cause you to lose your appetite and make it difficult to talk. Throat inflammation, also known as sore throat, is also a common reason why you may have to stay home and not go to work. 

What are the symptoms of throat inflammation or sore throat?

Throat inflammation arises from pharyngitis, which is inflammation of the pharynx located at the back of your throat. Pharyngitis is commonly known as “sore throat”. 

The main symptoms of this condition includes the following:

  • Painful and scratchy throat
  • Pain in throat that worsens with swallowing or talking
  • Difficulty swallowing

The sore throat can also be accompanied by some of these symptoms:

  • Runny nose
  • Fever
  • Hoarse voice
  • Headache
  • Cough 
  • Joint pain or muscle aches
  • Nausea or vomiting

What causes a sore throat?

Infographic on the causes of throat inflammation

From a viral infection to being exposed to allergens, a sore throat can be caused by a number of factors. Let’s look at the different causes.

A bacterial or viral infection

A sore throat can be caused by a viral or bacterial infection occurring in the upper respiratory tract.

Your upper respiratory tract includes the following:

  • Nose
  • Sinuses
  • Pharynx (throat)
  • Larynx (voice box)
  • Trachea

Sometimes, your immune system can be weakened due to stress, dehydration and other factors. This makes your upper respiratory tract susceptible to an infection, resulting in throat inflammation.

Sore throat is more commonly caused by viral infections – such as the common cold, influenza, measles, chickenpox and mumps. In fact, viruses cause about 90% of sore throats

Throat inflammation can also be caused by a bacterial infection. The most common is strep throat, which is caused by group A streptococcus bacteria. 

In some cases, a viral infection can result in a bacterial infection, worsening the sore throat. 

Other causes of sore throat

Infections aside, throat inflammation can also be caused by other factors such as a dry environment and overuse of voice.

Irritating substances 

Irritating substances such as chemical irritants, tobacco smoke and spicy foods can irritate the throat. Being exposed to indoor or outdoor pollution can also lead to a sore throat.

Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)

Those suffering from GERD, commonly known as chronic gastric acid reflux, may also have sore throat frequently. 

GERD is a digestive system disorder where the stomach acids leak up to the oesophagus, throat and voice box. The stomach acid irritates the tissues close to the pharynx or the voice box, resulting in inflammation of the area.

Dryness

Breathing through the mouth when you have a stuffy nose or while sleeping can cause dry mouth. A dry mouth then makes it easier for microbes to enter and attack the throat. 

Due to chronic nasal obstruction, heavy snorers sleep with their mouth wide open. This dries out the throat, and they may sometimes wake up the next day with a dry mouth or sore throat.

Dry air can also cause a sore throat. This is because moisture is sucked from the mouth and throat, which can make your throat feel scratchy and rough.

Smoking

Chronic smokers tend to have sore throats more often since smoking irritates the throat. In addition, exposure to the toxins in cigarette smoke can lead to a sore throat.

Allergies

Allergies to pet fur, mould, dust and pollen can irritate and inflame the throat. When the immune system reacts to these allergens, it can release chemicals that cause nasal congestion, watery eyes, sneezing and throat irritation. 

Excess mucus in the nose can drip down the back of the throat—further irritating the throat.

Voice overuse

Strained muscles due to yelling, talking loudly or talking for long periods without rest can also cause throat inflammation.

Worried that your sore throat could be a symptom of COVID-19? Allay your fears and consult a doctor from the comfort of your home through MyDoc’s COVID-19 Clinic.

Bacterial and viral sore throat: what’s the difference?

Throat inflammation can be caused by either a viral or bacterial infection. 

Here’s a look at the main differences. 

Sore throat (Viral infection)Strep throat (Sore throat caused by a bacterial infection)
Resolves on its own within a week or two and does not respond to antibioticsRequires antibiotic to prevent complications
Mild and is usually not accompanied by a feverAccompanied with a fever greater than 38.5ºC
Has redness and mild swellingSwollen and very red tonsils
Treatment only necessary to help relieve symptomsTreatment necessary to prevent further complications
Usually comes with cough or runny noseNo cough or cold symptoms such as runny nose or congestion

If you have strep throat, the symptoms will usually develop within five days of infection.

Symptoms of strep throat:

  • Fever greater than 38.5ºC
  • Sore and red throat with white patches
  • Headache
  • Chills
  • Loss of appetite
  • Swollen lymph nodes at the neck area
  • Trouble swallowing or breathing
  • Extreme rash

Strep throat is more common among kids aged five to 15 years old. It’s also highly contagious and spreads through small respiratory droplets that become airborne when an infected person sneezes or coughs.

After being exposed to the bacteria, you can become infected if you touch your eyes, nose or mouth. You can also be infected if you share food or drink with someone with strep throat. 

However, most people are not contagious after they have been on antibiotics for at least 24 hours.

When should you see a doctor for your throat inflammation?

Most sore throats are not serious and subside within three to seven days without any medication. However, you should visit a doctor if you display the following symptoms:

For adults

  • Sore throat is serious and persists for more than a week
  • Presence of high fever that is 38.5ºC or higher 
  • Presence of rash
  • Area near the neck and below the ears are swollen
  • Difficulty breathing or trouble swallowing

For children, if there are one or more of these symptoms

  • Difficulty breathing or trouble swallowing 
  • A lot of drooling in an infant or young child 
  • Presence of high fever that is 38.5ºC or higher 
  • Area near the neck and below the ears are swollen  
  • Unable or not willing to drink or eat 
  • Voice sounds muffled 
  • Stiff neck or has difficulty opening the mouth

How is sore throat treated by a doctor?

Throat inflammation is a common symptom that the body can usually tackle on its own with sufficient rest and medication. As such, doctors usually treat a sore throat by letting it run its course.

During the consultation, the doctor may ask about your symptoms and check the back of your throat for redness, swelling and white spots. They will also check the sides of your neck to see if you have swollen glands.

If you’re suspected to have a viral infection, the doctors will advise you to drink lots of water and get plenty of rest. Painkillers and anti-fever medicine are also usually given to relieve symptoms.

If your doctor suspects that you have a bacterial infection, he or she will do a strep test. This involves swabbing the back of your throat with a long cotton swab. The test determines if the sore throat is caused by group A streptococcus bacteria, or another type of bacteria. 

If you test positive for a bacterial infection, your doctor will prescribe a course of antibiotics. Note that it’s crucial to finish the entire course of antibiotics to inhibit the spread of infection, and to prevent it from worsening or returning.

Stopping the medication when symptoms improve can trigger a relapse and cause the symptoms to return. 

How to prevent throat inflammation

Person washing hands under running water in a sink to prevent throat inflammation

A sore throat doesn’t feel great. So how can you prevent one in the first place? 

Here are some pointers: 

  • Wash your hands thoroughly and frequently to prevent bacterial or viral infections
    • Use hand sanitiser if you’re not able to wash your hands 
  • Avoid sharing personal items such as cups and utensils with others
  • Avoid close contact with those suffering from strep throat or are unwell
  • If you have to cough or sneeze, do it on a tissue and then throw it away 
  • Avoid touching your face, nose and mouth
  • Avoid smoking or inhaling secondhand smoke
  • Stay hydrated
  • Maintain a healthy lifestyle

Here at MyDoc, we believe prevention is better than cure. Skip long queues and consult a doctor with MyDoc in less than 20 minutes! 

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