Having a sore throat can be one of the most painful conditions affecting a common everyday act of our lives – swallowing. Also known as pharyngitis, a sore throat is usually the result of either a viral or bacterial infection.
Symptoms of a sore throat
When a sore throat develops, you will have no problem mistaking what it is. The throat hurts due to irritation, being swollen or having a scratchy feeling. Swallowing intensifies the pain in addition to having tenderness in the neck. Other symptoms include:
· Coughing or sneezing
· Hoarseness or laryngitis
· Runny nose or nasal congestion
· Lack of appetite
· Mild fever
· General fatigue
· Swollen or sore glands in your jaw and throat
· Ear pain
· Abdominal pain and vomiting – usually seen in children
· Red and swollen tonsils
Causes of a sore throat
The vast majority of people – 90% - who develop a sore throat, can blame it on a virus of which there are an estimated 200 to 300 different strains of viruses causing colds and sore throats. The other 10% of cases of sore throats are caused from a bacterial infection or other medical condition
Other causes of a sore throat can include irritants such as breathing in air low in humidity, smoking, air pollution, excessive yelling, postnasal drip caused by allergies, and breathing through the mouth drying out the throat. A person can develop a sore throat if there is a backflow of stomach acid into the throat and mouth or if there is any kind of an injury to the throat area.
People of all ages can get a sore throat but they occur more commonly in children between the ages of 5 to 15 years of age. Other people who are prone to getting a sore throat are smokers, allergy sufferers, and people with compromised immune systems.
Treatment for a sore throat
Since the vast majority of sore throats are caused by a virus, it should heal itself within 7 to 10 days. Sore throats caused by a virus do not need an antibiotic. This is because antibiotics do not kill viruses and therefore have no impact on the symptoms. Plus using an antibiotic unnecessarily only creates strains of bacteria that can become resistant to antibiotics. About 85% of people who do not use an antibiotic for a sore throat caused by a virus will be symptom free in about a week.
Here are strategies to use in the meantime to make a sore throat feel better:
· Take acetaminophen, ibuprofen, or naproxen for throat pain and do not exceed the recommended doses. Children younger than 18 years should not take aspirin.
· Gargle with warm salt water (1 teaspoon of salt for 1 cup of warm water).
· Suck on throat lozenges or hard candies to stimulate saliva flow.
· Eat foods that are non-irritating to the throat – pudding, mashed potatoes, yogurt, etc.
· If the sore throat is due to an allergy, use an over-the-counter antihistamine to provide relief of postnasal drip.
· Use a humidifier or vaporizer or take a hot shower to provide more moisture to breathe in.
· Drink plenty of fluid keeping the throat lubricated. Acidic beverages such as orange juice may need to be avoided.
What if the sore throat is actually strep throat?
Strep throat can mimic a viral sore throat as they both cause pain in the throat area. Strep throat however, is caused by a bacterial infection called streptococcal bacteria. Throat pain will start out gradually and quickly become more severe and constant with swallowing being very difficult. Typically a person may run a fever of 100 degrees or higher with the symptoms worsening at night.
The strep bacteria can lead to other conditions such as infection of the tonsils, sinuses, skin, blood, or middle ear. Untreated strep throat can also lead to rheumatic fever which causes heart damage along with kidney problems. Medical help is required if a person has symptoms that include drooling, an inability to swallow, difficulty opening the mouth, difficulty breathing, redness or swelling of the neck, swollen lymph nodes, bleeding from the throat, or a fever higher than 101 degrees.
A doctor will determine if it is strep throat by performing a rapid antigen strep test in which the results can be provided within minutes. Since strep throat is caused by a bacterial infection, antibiotics are necessary to treat it. Penicillin is the most common antibiotic prescribed for strep throat. Anyone who is allergic to penicillin will be prescribed erythromycin. It is critical to take all the medication a doctor prescribes even once symptoms go away so as to kill off all bacteria.