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 health 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 is an inflammation of the pharynx which is  located behind the mouth and nasal cavity, and above the oesophagus and voice box – the tubes going down to the stomach and the lungs. 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
  • Nasal cavity
  • Mouth
  • Throat (pharynx)
  • Voicebox (larynx)

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 linked to the common cold or flu account for 90% of sore throats. 

Throat inflammation can also caused by a bacterial infection. The most common one is strep throat, an infection of the throat and tonsils caused by group A streptococcus bacteria. 

In some cases, a secondary bacterial infection may develop during or following a cold, 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 acid regurgitation or gastroesophageal 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.

Mouth breathing

When your mouth is left open, air dries the saliva that keeps the mouth moist. As a result, your throat and mouth may feel dry when you wake up. The primary causes of mouth breathing are nasal congestion and allergies.

Dry indoor air can also make your throat feel rough and scratchy as it can dry out your skin and mucous membranes.


Smoking and secondhand smoke can irritate the throat. This irritation results from inhaling the hot, dry air and toxic chemicals in tobacco smoke. Chronic smokers often experience a sore throat that does not go away. In addition, people who smoke are more susceptible to health conditions that can cause a sore throat (e.g. cold, flu, respiratory tract infections) as smoking weakens the functioning of the immune system.


People who have seasonal allergies to dust, molds or pet dander are more susceptible to developing a sore throat. Allergies can cause postnasal drip, which involves excess mucus draining down the back of the nasal passage into the throat. Postnasal drip can lead to a persistent, raw sore 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 serious complications and stop the further spread of bacteria
Mild sore throat with or without feverSudden onset of severe sore throat with difficulty swallowing and high-grade 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
  • Red and swollen tonsils, sometimes with white patches 
  • Headache
  • Chills
  • Loss of appetite
  • Swollen lymph nodes at the neck area
  • Pain with swallowing
  • Rash

Strep throat affects people of all ages but occurs more commonly in children. It’s highly contagious and spreads through airborne droplets when an infected person sneezes or coughs; or through shared food or drinks. You can also pick it up from a doorknob or other surface (previously touched by an infected person) and transfer it to your nose, mouth or eye.

Antibiotics such as amoxicillin or penicillin are used to treat strep throat. Most people are no longer contagious after they have been on antibiotics for at least 24 hours and are cured when symptoms are cleared. Without taking antibiotics,  a person with strep throat is infectious for about three weeks.

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 adequate hydration, and with the help of some medications to relieve the discomfort. 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 antibiotics 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
Washing your hands regularly can help to prevent infections like strep throat

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 (with soap and water for at least 20 seconds) and frequently to prevent illnesses and the spread of infections to others
    • 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
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze and then throw used tissues in a trash. 
  • Avoid touching your face, nose and mouth with your unwashed hands after touching contaminated surfaces / objects
  • Avoid smoking or stay away from 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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