What is a sore throat?
A sore throat is also known as pharyngitis.
The throat (or pharynx) is the muscular passage visible when you open your mouth. It connects the nose and mouth to the oesophagus and lungs. The pharynx helps us control speech, breathing and swallowing.
A sore throat occurs when the tissues of the pharynx become inflamed. Most commonly, this arises because of infection by viruses and bacteria, associated with the common cold or flu.
Sore throats are common and it is said that the average person will get 2 or 3 of these a year. Sore throats, like cold and flu infections, are more commonly seen in younger people. This is because as a person gets older, his or her immune system has had the chance to build up resistance to cold and flu viruses.
Sore throat symptoms
Sore throats are often part of the symptoms experienced with cold and flu infections. They may the first signs of these infections, or develop later as a result of subsequent (or secondary) infection by bacteria.
Inflammation at the back of the throat can give rise to a variety of symptoms, all described as a sore throat:
- At the start of a viral cold infection, it is not uncommon to experience a feeling of irritation at the back of the throat which might be described as ‘scratchy’ or ‘itchy’
- If the throat inflammation continues, this irritation can develop into a discomfort or pain
- Further inflammation can give rise to discomfort on swallowing food or liquids or even saliva
These are only a few of the symptoms associated with having a sore throat.
Causes of sore throats
Sore throats don’t generally come alone but tend to be the result of another cause. The most common causes are viral infections associated with colds or flu, or a secondary infection by bacteria.
Other causes of sore throats include:
- Excessive use of the voice – for example, shouting and singing during a rock concert
- Injury or trauma to the back of the throat as a result of eating something too solid – eg. a fish bone
- Hayfever or other forms of allergic rhinitis - air-borne allergies can cause inflammation to the back of the throat
- Irritation caused by atmospheric pollutants or self-inflicted with cigarette smoke
- Acid reflux – basically, acid rising up from the stomach and irritating the back of the throat
- Certain types of medication such as the class of drugs known as DMARDs (disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs) used to treat rheumatoid arthritis
- A weakened immune system such as seen with HIV and AIDs can cause ‘normal’ infections to become more severe
- Certain rare medical conditions such as cancer can cause a persistent sore throat.
These are only a few of the causes of sore throats.
Remedies to cure a sore throat
Sore throats relating to colds and flu may be treated in a number of ways:
- Many people resort to simple analgesics (aspirin and paracetamol) including those contained in conventional cold and flu remedies
- An alternative is to use Echinacea to help relieve the symptoms of colds and flu, including sore throats. This herb has an additional benefit as it works by strengthening the body’s immune system
- Throat sprays are available to treat sore throats. These usually contain conventional antiseptics and analgesics
- Alternatively, there are herbal sore throat remedies such as those combining Echinacea and sage.
For some more tips, see our article on the best home and herbal remedies for a sore throat.
When should I see my doctor?
Most cases of sore throat do not need medical attention. However, there are a number of circumstances where you should seek the advice of your doctor:
- If your sore throat is accompanied by high fever
- Your sore throat does not improve within one week
- You experience repeated and frequent episodes of sore throat without an apparent cause
- If your sore throat is persistent
- If you have difficulty breathing
- If you are suffering from an underlying health condition which suppresses your immune system, such as HIV, AIDS, leukaemia, whilst receiving chemotherapy etc.