Pharyngitis is inflammation of the pharynx, which is in the back of the throat. It’s most often referred to simply as “sore throat.” Pharyngitis can also cause scratchiness in the throat and difficulty swallowing.
According to the American Osteopathic Association (AOA), pharyngitis-induced sore throat is one of the most common reasons for doctor visits. More cases of pharyngitis occur during the colder months of the year. It’s also one of the most common reasons why people stay home from work. In order to properly treat a sore throat, it’s important to identify its cause. Pharyngitis may be caused by bacterial or viral infections.
There are numerous viral and bacterial agents that can cause pharyngitis. They include:
- adenovirus, which is the cause of the common cold
- croup, which is a childhood illness distinguished by a barking cough
- whooping cough
Viruses are the most common cause of sore throats. Pharyngitis is most commonly caused by viral infections such as the common cold, influenza, or mononucleosis. Viral infections don’t respond to antibiotics, and treatment is only necessary to help relieve symptoms.
Less commonly, pharyngitis is caused by a bacterial infection. Bacterial infections require antibiotics. The most common bacterial infection of the throat is strep throat, which is caused by Group A streptococcus. Rare causes of bacterial pharyngitis include gonorrhea, chlamydia, and corynebacterium.
Frequent exposure to colds and flus can increase your risk for pharyngitis. This is especially true for people with jobs in healthcare, allergies, and frequent sinus infections. Exposure to secondhand smoke may also raise your risk.
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:
- runny nose
- body aches
- fever (a low-grade fever with a cold and higher-grade fever with the flu)
In addition to a sore throat, the symptoms of mononucleosis include:
Strep throat, another type of pharyngitis, can also cause:
If you’re experiencing symptoms of pharyngitis, your doctor will look at your throat. They’ll check for any white or grey patches, swelling, and redness. Your doctor may also look in your ears and nose. To check for swollen lymph nodes, they will feel the sides of your neck.
If your doctor suspects that you have strep throat, they will likely take a throat culture. This involves using a cotton 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. In some cases, the swab is sent to a lab for further testing and results are not available for at least 24 hours.
If your doctor suspects another cause of your pharyngitis, they may order blood work. A small sample of blood from your arm or hand is drawn and then sent to a lab for testing. This 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.
If a virus is causing your pharyngitis, home care can help relieve symptoms. Home care includes:
- drinking plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration
- eating warm broth
- gargling with warm salt water (1 tsp. salt per 8 oz. water)
- using a humidifier
- resting until you feel better
For pain and fever relief, consider taking over-the-counter medication such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil). Throat lozenges may also be helpful in soothing a painful, scratchy throat.
Alternative remedies are sometimes used to treat pharyngitis. However, you should contact your doctor before using them to avoid drug interactions or other health complications. Some of the most commonly used herbs include:
- marshmallow root
- slippery elm
In some cases, medical treatment is necessary for pharyngitis. This is especially the case if it’s caused by a bacterial infection. For such instances, your doctor will prescribe antibiotics. According to the Mayo Clinic, penicillin is the most commonly prescribed treatment for sore throat. It’s important that you take the entire course of antibiotics to prevent the infection from returning or worsening. An entire course of these antibiotics usually lasts seven to 10 days.
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 aren’t available
- avoid smoking and inhaling secondhand smoke
Most cases of pharyngitis can be successfully treated at home. However, there are some symptoms that require a doctor visit for further evaluation.
You should see your doctor if:
- you have had a sore throat for more than a week
- you have a fever greater than 100.4°F
- your lymph nodes are swollen
- you develop a new rash