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Sore throat usually refers to pain in the throat and neck area. As there are many different types of tissue in this area and as the throat is involved in both respiration and swallowing, a sore throat can have many causes. It often radiates to the ears even if there is nothing wrong with them.

Causes of a sore throat

The most common causes of a sore throatare inflammation and dryness of the throat due to nasal congestion.

  • Inflammation of the throat and tonsils can be caused by infection from a bacterium or a virus. The most common bacterial infection is streptococcal pharyngitis, but throat infections and a sore throat are much more commonly due to respiratory viruses. Streptococcal pharyngitis-type throat pain without a runny nose and cough can also be caused by viral mononucleosis.
  • In common viral rhinitis or other rhinitis, the nose becomes blocked and consequently breathing causes dryness and pain in the throat.
  • A sore throat can be caused by any agent that irritates the mucous membranes, most commonly smoking but also dust and chemicals.
  • Thyroid inflammation may manifest as persistent throbbing pain either in the thyroid region in the lower neck or in the jaw and even in the ear area.
  • Muscle tension due to laryngeal tension causes a feeling of a lump in the throat and possibly pain in the larynx area.
  • Urgent treatment is required if throat pain involves obstruction of the respiratory tract (e.g. caused by swelling due to an allergy or a foreign body) or a severe inflammation caused by a throat abscess, inflamed epiglottitis or laryngitis.
  • Pain on swallowing that is not associated with a respiratory infection can be a sign of mucosal damage or, in rare cases, a tumour.

Self-care

Pain due to a viral throat infection is often one of the first symptoms of flu. It often gets better by itself within a few days but can significantly disrupt life. A viral infection may cause a slight increase in body temperature (not reaching 38.5 degrees), nasal congestion and flu symptoms. If the condition doesn’t involve swelling of the neck, throat or face, trouble breathing, or other symptoms that make you feel uncomfortable, you can manage it by yourself. You can also alleviate pain with NSAIDs and hot drinks. Lozenges containing numbing agents may provide temporary relief.

If the pain is caused by smoking or other trigger, you should avoid this trigger.

When should you seek treatment?

You should seek treatment if your sore throat is persistent, i.e. its symptoms last for over a week. Examinations are also required in the absence of a clear cause that will resolve on its own or that can be overcome.

You should seek treatment within 24 hours if your sore throat involves either of the following:

  • high fever or
  • severe one-sided throat pain.

You should contact a healthcare professional if your throat pain involves any of the following:

  • deterioration of your general condition
  • trouble opening your mouth
  • trouble swallowing liquids or saliva
  • slurred speech
  • trouble breathing
  • severe pain that gets worse when you lie down
  • noticeable swelling of the neck
  • a corrosive substance or a foreign body in the throat.

Information sources: The Finnish Medical Society Duodecim: Terveysportti, Lääkärin tietokanta database

FSHS General Practitioner / 12 September 2019

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