What Causes Pain On Swallowing?

Conditions list medically reviewed by George Krucik, MD, MBA

Painful swallowing is relatively common. People of all ages may experience it. This symptom has many possible causes. Difficulty swallowing along with pain is generally a symptom of an infection or an allergic reaction. See your doctor if the pain... Read More

Painful swallowing is relatively common. People of all ages may experience it. This symptom has many possible causes. Difficulty swallowing along with pain is generally a symptom of an infection or an allergic reaction. See your doctor if the pain is severe or if it interferes with eating, drinking, or breathing.

Causes of painful swallowing

The most common causes of painful swallowing are:

Other possible causes of painful swallowing include:

In rare cases, painful swallowing can indicate certain types of cancer, such as esophageal cancer.

What are possible complications?

Conditions that cause painful swallowing can lead to complications such as:

  • chest infections
  • worsening bacterial or viral infections
  • a loss of taste, which may be temporary or permanent
  • swollen lymph nodes in the neck, which may make it difficult to turn your head or to lean your head back

Other symptoms that may occur if you have an infection

You may experience the following symptoms along with painful swallowing if you have an infection:

When to call your doctor

Call your child’s pediatrician if they experience the following symptoms along with painful swallowing:

Go to the hospital right away if you’re an adult and experience the following symptoms:

  • difficulty opening your mouth
  • problems swallowing
  • extreme throat pain that gets worse
  • trouble breathing

Schedule an appointment with your doctor if your painful swallowing occurs along with any of the following:

Always call your doctor if you’re experiencing any other symptoms that concern you.

Diagnosing the cause of painful swallowing

When visiting your doctor, make sure to mention every symptom you’re experiencing. You should also tell them if any symptoms are new or getting worse. Describing all of your symptoms will help your doctor determine the cause of your pain.

If a physical examination isn’t enough to determine a diagnosis, your doctor may order certain tests, such as the following:

  • A blood test called a complete blood count measures the amount of different types of blood cells in your body. The results can help your doctor determine whether your body is fighting off an infection caused by a virus or bacteria.
  • MRI and CT scans can produce detailed images of your throat, allowing your doctor to check for any abnormalities. These imaging tests might also be used to detect the presence of tumors in the throat.
  • A throat swab culture involves taking a sample of mucus from the back of your throat. This test can check for the presence of certain kinds of organisms in the throat that could cause an infection.
  • A sputum culture consists of obtaining a sample of sputum, or phlegm, and testing it for the presence of certain organisms. This simple, painless test can help your doctor determine whether an infection is causing your painful swallowing.

Barium swallow test

A barium swallow test includes a series of X-rays of your esophagus. You get the X-rays after you swallow a special liquid containing a harmless element called barium. Barium temporarily coats your esophagus and shows up on an X-ray, allowing your doctor to trace the pathway of your food. The barium swallow test can show your doctor whether food is traveling from your mouth to your stomach properly.

Treatment for painful swallowing

Treatment for painful swallowing can vary depending on the cause of the pain. Your doctor will likely prescribe antibiotics to treat infections of the throat, tonsils, or esophagus. Your doctor may give you a mouthwash that can numb your throat while you take oral antibiotics. This numbing agent helps to block any pain you may feel when swallowing the pill. For severe pain, a throat spray can help numb the pain. Your doctor may also prescribe anti-inflammatory medications to reduce inflammation in the esophagus, throat, or tonsils.

If you frequently experience painful swallowing due to recurring tonsillitis or if your tonsillitis doesn’t respond to medication, your doctor may recommend surgery to remove your tonsils. This surgery is called a tonsillectomy. It’s an outpatient procedure, which means you can go home the same day as the surgery. You and your doctor can discuss your risks and determine whether a tonsillectomy is appropriate for your condition.

Home remedies

Over-the-counter (OTC) antacids may relieve swelling in the esophagus due to acid reflux. However, your doctor will prescribe medications that are specifically designed to provide relief from symptoms if you have chronic acid reflux or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Taking OTC antacids sometimes isn’t enough to treat the symptoms of GERD.

Other treatments you can try at home include the following:

  • Drink plenty of fluids. Aside from keeping you hydrated, drinking at least eight glasses of water per day also soothes and moistens your throat.
  • Mix 1 teaspoon of salt in 8 ounces of water, and then gargle it in the back of your throat. This helps to relieve swelling and pain.
  • Sip warm liquids, such as warm water or tea mixed with honey, to relieve swelling and pain in the throat.
  • Avoid substances that are known to irritate your throat. These include allergens, chemicals, and cigarette smoke.

Breathe in moist air

A humidifier is a machine that converts water to moisture that slowly fills the air. A humidifier increases the humidity in a room. Breathing in this moist air can ease throat inflammation and provide relief from a sore throat. Taking a hot shower also has a similar effect.

Try herbal lozenges and teas.

Though they haven’t been scientifically proven to ease sore throats, herbal lozenges and teas can reduce throat pain. Examples include sage, licorice root, and honeysuckle flower. You may able to find these at your local drugstore or health food store.

What you can do now

Try OTC medication and home remedies to ease your pain. You may have an infection or temporary illness that you can treat effectively at home. However, you should call your doctor if your pain becomes more severe or if your pain doesn’t subside within three days. You should also contact your doctor if you’re experiencing any other symptoms that concern you.

Wash your hands regularly and to avoid sharing eating utensils or drinking glasses with other people to prevent spreading any possible infection. Staying hydrated and getting plenty of rest are also important for ensuring your recovery. 

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11 possible conditions

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to diagnose. Please consult a healthcare professional if you have health concerns.

Conditions list medically reviewed by George Krucik, MD, MBA