Having a sore throat is no fun. This time of year, the ENTs at Arkansas Otolaryngology Center in Central Arkansas often treat and see patients with sore throats due to illness, allergies, weather, or all of the above. Let’s take a look at the causes of and some of the treatments available for a sore throat.
Viral and bacterial infections are the major causes of sore throats. A cold virus often causes throat irritation and difficulty breathing, as do more severe viral infections such as the flu, measles, chicken pox, and whooping cough. Another common virus that causes a sore throat is mononucleosis, which can last a while. The “mono” virus affects the lymph nodes and often causes enlargement of the tonsils and swelling in the neck, resulting in a severe sore throat.
Bacterial infections also cause sore throats. Perhaps the most common is strep throat (an infection caused by streptococcus bacteria). Aside from making the throat irritated and sore, strep can also cause tonsillitis (inflammation of the tonsils) and inflammation of the lymph tissues in the neck. Bacterial infection of the sinuses can also lead to sore throat. A sinus infection causes excess mucus to be produced, which drains down to the throat, carrying the infection there and causing irritation.
Other causes of sore throats include general and seasonal allergies, pollutants in the air, acid reflux, or simply over-straining of the voice (such as excessive shouting at a sporting event).
If you are experiencing a sore throat because of one of the reasons above, there are some simple things you can try to alleviate the soreness. First, it’s important to drink plenty of water and other liquids when you have a sore throat, especially if you have the flu or other virus. To soothe a mild sore throat, try sipping some hot tea, which is even better with honey. Using a humidifier or lightly breathing in water vapor from a hot shower can also help alleviate a scratchy sore throat.
A bacterial infection such as strep throat may be treated with an antibiotic prescribed by your doctor. To be effective, antibiotics must be taken for the full course of time they are prescribed—usually 7-10 days. While they don’t work to get rid of viruses directly, certain antibiotics may also be prescribed to treat infections caused by viruses to speed up the healing process.
There are also some common-sense things you can do to better your chances of avoiding a sore throat. The most obvious tip is to avoid smoking (and even second-hand smoke), which by itself can damage the lining of the throat. Also avoid exposure to other irritants such as household cleaning chemicals by wearing a mask and gloves while using cleaning products. And if you must shout until you become hoarse, be sure to give your voice a break and allow your throat to heal.
If you or your child have seasonal allergies, you may need to take a little extra care to avoid the allergens in your daily environment that cause throat irritation. (The importance of testing for allergies to get the proper treatment is discussed more deeply in another one of our blogs). During cold and flu season, it’s also important to be aware of exposure to germs at the workplace, clinics, child care centers, classrooms, and other places where people are in close quarters. Don’t forget to wash your hands frequently and avoid sharing drinks in these places where bacteria and other contagions may thrive.