Painful swallowing is relatively common and experienced by people of all ages from time to time. This symptom can be caused by anything from a throat infection to a toothache. Difficulty swallowing along with pain is generally the sign of an infection or an allergic reaction. See your doctor if the pain is severe or if it interferes with eating, drinking, or breathing.
There are many causes for painful swallowing. If you experience pain when swallowing, it can be a symptom of:
- swollen lymph glands (tonsils, adenoids)
- throat injury
- swallowing large pills
- esophageal scarring (normally the result of acid erosion caused by acid reflux)
- ear infection
The most common causes for difficulty swallowing are:
- chronic cough
- acid reflux disease
- throat infection
- swallowing jagged foods such as chips or crackers improperly
If an infection is causing the pain when swallowing, you may experience other symptoms such as:
- cough may be dry or productive
- red inflamed tonsils
When visiting your doctor, be sure to mention every symptom you are experiencing. Also let him or her know if any of these symptoms are new or getting worse. The type of symptoms you experience will help your doctor determine the cause of your pain.
Since a physical examination usually is not enough to determine a diagnosis, your doctor may administer tests such as:
- blood test (usually taken with a needle from the inside of your arm)
- throat culture (using a swab to take a sample from the back of your throat)
- sputum culture (taking a sample of your phlegm)
These tests can help identify any bacteria or viruses causing the condition.
Treatment options for painful swallowing depend solely on the cause of the pain. Your doctor will likely prescribe antibiotics to treat throat infections, tonsil infections, infections within the mouth, or esophageal infections.
Your doctor may provide a numbing mouthwash to numb your throat before swallowing the antibiotic. This numbing agent helps to block the pain you may feel when swallowing the pill. A throat spray can also treat the infection and numb the pain. Your doctor may prescribe anti-inflammatory medications to reduce inflammation of the esophagus, throat, or tonsils.
Over-the-counter antacids may relieve esophageal swelling due to acid reflux. However, if you have chronic acid reflux or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), your doctor will prescribe medications specifically used to provide relief for chronic acid reflux. Over-the-counter antacids are for temporary use and not to treat chronic acid reflux.
If you frequently experience painful swallowing due to recurring tonsillitis, or if your tonsillitis does not respond to medication treatment, your doctor may suggest removing the tonsils surgically.
Some complications that can occur with painful swallowing are:
- tonsillectomy (tonsil removal)
- worsening infection
- chest infection
- loss of taste may be temporary or permanent
- swollen lymph nodes
Swollen lymph node glands on either side of your neck may make it difficult to turn your head fully to the side or to lean your head backward. This discomfort normally subsides as the infection leaves the body and lymph node glands reduced in size.