Written by Janelle Martel | Published on August 20, 2012
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD

What Is Pharyngitis?

Pharyngitis is inflammation of the pharynx—the back of the throat. This can cause a sore throat, as well as scratchiness in the throat and difficulty swallowing.

According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, pharyngitis is one of the most common reasons for doctor visits (UMM, 2011). More cases of pharyngitis occur during the colder months of the year.

Find an internist or a pediatritian near you.

Causes of Pharyngitis

Viruses are the most common cause of sore throats, but some sore throats are caused by bacterial infections.

Individuals who are frequently exposed to colds and flus, such as healthcare workers or children in day care are the most likely to develop pharyngitis. Individuals who have allergies, experience frequent sinus infections, or who have been exposed to second-hand smoke are also more likely to develop pharyngitis.

Viral Infection

Pharyngitis is most commonly caused by viral infections such as the common cold, influenza, or mononucleosis. Viral infections do not respond to antibiotics, and treatment is only necessary to help relieve symptoms.

Bacterial Infection

Less commonly, pharyngitis is caused by a bacterial infection. Bacterial infections do require antibiotics. The most common bacterial infection of the throat is strep throat, which is caused by streptococcus A. Rare causes of bacterial pharyngitis include gonorrhea, chlamydia, and corynebacterium.

What Are the Symptoms of Pharyngitis?

The symptoms that accompany pharyngitis vary depending on the underlying condition.

In addition to a sore, dry, or scratchy throat, a cold or flu may cause:

  • sneezing
  • runny nose
  • headache
  • cough
  • fatigue
  • body aches
  • chills
  • fever (low grade with cold but higher with flu)

In addition to a sore throat, symptoms of mononucleosis include:

  • swollen lymph nodes
  • fatigue
  • fever
  • muscles aches
  • general malaise
  • loss of appetite
  • rash

In addition to a sore throat, strep throat can cause:

  • trouble swallowing
  • red throat with white patches
  • swollen lymph nodes
  • fever
  • chills
  • loss of appetite and nausea
  • unusual taste in mouth
  • general malaise

How Is Pharyngitis Diagnosed?

Physical Exam

If you are experiencing symptoms of pharyngitis, your doctor will look at your throat. He or she will check for any white patches, swelling, and redness. Your doctor may also look in your ears and nose. To check for swollen lymph nodes, your doctor will feel the sides of your neck.

Throat Culture

If your doctor suspects that you have strep throat, he or she will take a throat culture. This involves using a swab to take a sample of the secretions from your throat. Most doctors are able to do a rapid strep test in the office. This test will tell your doctor within a few minutes if the test is positive for streptococcus. Your doctor may also send the swab to a lab to test for strep bacteria.

Blood Tests

If your doctor suspects another cause of your pharyngitis, he or she may order blood work. This will involve drawing a small sample of blood from your arm or hand and sending it to a lab for testing. A simple blood test can determine whether you have mononucleosis. A complete blood count (CBC) test may be done to determine if you have another type of infection. There are numerous viral and bacterial agents that can cause pharyngitis. They include:

  • measles
  • chickenpox
  • croup (a childhood illness distinguished by a barking cough
  • whooping cough

Home Care and Medication

If your pharyngitis is caused by a bacterial infection, your doctor will prescribe antibiotics. It is important that you take the entire course of antibiotics to prevent the infection from returning or worsening. If your pharyngitis is caused by a virus, home care can help relieve symptoms.

Home care includes:

  • taking over-the-counter medication such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen to ease pain and reduce fever
  • drinking plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration
  • gargling with warm salt water
  • using throat lozenges
  • using a humidifier
  • resting until you feel better

Pharyngitis Prevention

Maintaining proper hygiene can prevent many cases of pharyngitis.

To prevent pharyngitis:

  • avoid sharing food, drinks, and eating utensils
  • avoid individuals who are sick
  • wash your hands often, especially before eating and after coughing or sneezing
  • use alcohol-based hand sanitizers when soap and water are unavailable
  • avoid smoking and inhaling second-hand smoke

When to Call Your Doctor

Most cases of pharyngitis can be successfully treated at home. However, there are some symptoms that require a doctor visit.

You should see your doctor if:

  • you have had a sore throat for more than a week
  • you have a high fever
  • your lymph nodes are swollen
  • you develop a rash
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