Why Do We Get Sore Throats?
Sore throats can occur for a variety of reasons. A sore throat is often one of the symptoms of a cold or the flu, and is also an indicator of a much more serious infection like strep throat or mononucleosis. A sore throat can also be related to other problems, such as allergies or even reflux, when stomach acids are regurgitated into the back of the throat.
Causes of Sore Throats
Doctor examining patient's throatSome of the most common causes of sore throats include:
Viral infections are the most common cause of sore throats, with the flu and the common cold as the usual culprits. Other, more serious, viruses include chicken pox, measles, and mononucleosis. These viruses are highly contagious and spread quickly. Sore throats associated with cold and flu will usually go away on their own, but the more serious infections may require medical attention.
Bacterial infections cause illnesses such as strep throat and tonsillitis and are also contagious. These infections can lead to other illnesses, and usually require medical attention.
Tonsils are the lumpy tissues on each side of the back of the throat, and help a body to develop the immunities needed for their particular environment. In some people, especially children, this tissue becomes infected, causing a sore throat.
Not all sore throats are caused by illness. Some are simply caused by irritants in our environment or by the use of our voice. During cold weather, the dry heat indoors can cause a sore throat, especially in the morning. Also, being around smoke, drinking alcoholic beverages and eating spicy foods can cause a sore throat. Straining or misusing your voice (as in yelling at a ball game) can also cause a sore throat.
Just as pollen, dust and pet dander can irritate the nasal passages, they can also irritate the throat of someone who is allergic to such things.
People who suffer from reflux, either on an occasional or chronic basis, will awaken some mornings with a sore throat due to the regurgitation of stomach acids into the back of throat overnight.
Diagnosing Sore Throats
Most often, a throat culture is performed by using a medical cotton swab to collect cells from the back of the throat. The cells are placed in a medium where they can grow. Lab technicians look at the cells under a microscope and determine the presence and type of bacteria causing the sore throat.
In the case of cold or flu, simple home remedies can relieve the discomfort of a sore throat until the virus goes away. Some remedies include:
- Over-the-counter pain medication specifically for sore throat pain and other cold/flu symptoms
- Warm, clear liquids, such as hot tea or broth
- Humidifying the air in your home, especially where you sleep
- While sleeping, elevate your head slightly so mucus can drain more efficiently
In the case of bacterial infections such as strep throat, your doctor will need to prescribe an antibiotic. Although viral infectio ns do not respond to antibiotics, bacteria infections do, and antibiotics are required to prevent the infection from becoming more severe and spreading to other parts of the body.
At times, severe and recurring cases of tonsillitis, especially in children, will require the removal of the tonsils. Most people who undergo tonsillectomy find a significant reduction in colds and infections following having their tonsils removed.
When to Call Your Doctor
Be sure to call your doctor if you experience any of the following:
- Sore throat that lasts longer than one week
- Difficulty breathing, swallowing, or opening your mouth
- Prolonged fever
- Blood in saliva or phlegm
- Recurring sore throat
- Lump in the neck
- Hoarseness lasting more than two weeks