What Causes Dry Throat, and How Is It Treated?

Medically reviewed by Deborah Weatherspoon, PhD, RN, CRNA on September 27, 2017Written by Stephanie Watson on September 27, 2017

Is this cause for concern?

A dry, scratchy throat is a common symptom — especially during the cold winter months when the air is dry and upper respiratory infections are spreading. Usually, a dry throat is a sign of something minor, like dryness in the air or a head cold.

Looking at your other symptoms can help you figure out the cause of your dry throat, and know whether to call your doctor. Keep reading to learn more.

1. Dehydration

The dryness in your throat may simply be a sign that you haven’t had enough to drink. When you’re dehydrated, your body doesn’t produce as much of the saliva that normally moistens your mouth and throat.

Dehydration can also cause:

  • dry mouth
  • increased thirst
  • darker urine, and less urine than usual
  • fatigue
  • dizziness

Treatment options

Drink extra fluids during the day. Recommendations on how much to drink vary, but a good average is 15.5 cups of fluid for men and 11.5 cups of fluid for women.

You get about 20 percent of this fluid from fruits, vegetables, and other foods.

Make sure you’re drinking fluids that hydrate, such as water or sports drinks. You should avoid caffeinated sodas and coffee, which can cause your body to lose more water.

2. Sleeping with your mouth open

If you wake up every morning with a dry mouth, the problem might be that you sleep with your mouth open. The air dries up the saliva that normally keeps your mouth and throat moist.

Mouth breathing can also cause:

  • bad breath
  • snoring
  • daytime fatigue

Snoring could be a sign of obstructive sleep apnea, a condition in which your breathing pauses over and over again throughout the night.

Congestion from a cold or chronic allergies, or a problem with your nasal passages like a deviated septum, can also lead to mouth breathing.

Treatment options

If you have a sinus or congestion problem, apply an adhesive strip to the bridge of your nose to keep your nose open while you sleep.

For obstructive sleep apnea, your doctor can prescribe an oral appliance that repositions your jaw, or continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) therapy to keep air flowing into your airways during the night.

3. Hay fever or allergies

Hay fever, also called seasonal allergies, is caused by an immune system overreaction to normally harmless substances in your environment.

Common allergy triggers include:

  • grass
  • pollen
  • pet dander
  • mold
  • dust mites

When your immune system senses one of your triggers, it releases chemicals called histamines.

This can lead to symptoms like:

  • stuffed, runny nose
  • sneezing
  • itchy eyes, mouth, or skin
  • cough

Congestion in your nose may make you breathe through your mouth, which can dry out your throat. The extra mucus can also drip down the back of your throat, called postnasal drip. This can make your throat feel sore.

Treatment options

To prevent allergy symptoms, avoid your triggers as much as possible. It may be helpful to:

  • Stay indoors with the windows closed and the air conditioning on during the peak of allergy season.
  • Put dust mite-proof covers on your bed.
  • Wash your sheets and other bedding weekly in hot water.
  • Vacuum your carpets and dust your floors to pick up dust mites.
  • Clean up any mold in your house.
  • Keep pets out of your bedroom.

You can also control allergy symptoms with these treatments:

4. Cold

A cold is a common infection that’s caused by many different viruses. The infection can make your throat feel dry and scratchy.

You’ll also have symptoms like these:

  • stuffed, runny nose
  • sneezing
  • cough
  • body aches
  • mild fever

Treatment options

Most colds take a few days to run their course. Antibiotics won’t treat a cold, because they only kill bacteria — not viruses.

To help you feel better while your body gets over the cold, try these remedies:

  • Take an over-the-counter pain reliever like acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil) to relieve a sore throat and body aches.
  • Suck on a throat lozenge.
  • Drink warm liquids, such as broth and hot tea.
  • Gargle with a mixture of warm water and 1/2 teaspoon salt.
  • Use a decongestant nasal spray to relieve a stuffed nose.
  • Drink extra fluids to keep your mouth and throat moist and prevent dehydration.
  • Get plenty of rest.
  • Turn on a humidifier to moisten the air in your room.

5. Flu

The flu is a respiratory illness. Like a cold, a virus causes the flu. But flu symptoms tend to be more severe than those of a cold.

Along with a sore, scratchy throat, you may have:

  • fever
  • chills
  • cough
  • stuffy, runny nose
  • muscle aches
  • headache
  • fatigue
  • vomiting and diarrhea

The flu can lead to serious complications, especially in young children, older adults, and people with chronic medical conditions or a weakened immune system.

Complications of the flu include:

Treatment options

Antiviral drugs can reduce flu symptoms and shorten the amount of time you’re sick. But you have to start taking these medicines within 48 hours of when your symptoms start for them to work.

While you’re sick, try these methods to relieve your sore throat and other symptoms:

  • Rest until your symptoms improve.
  • Suck on a throat lozenge.
  • Gargle with a mixture of warm water and 1/2 teaspoon of salt.
  • Take an over-the-counter pain reliever like ibuprofen (Advil) or acetaminophen (Tylenol) to lower your fever and ease body aches.
  • Drink warm fluids, such as tea and broth.

6. Acid reflux or GERD

Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is a condition that causes acid to back up from your stomach into your esophagus — the pipe that carries food from your mouth to your stomach. The backup of acid is called acid reflux.

Acid burns the lining of your esophagus, causing symptoms like:

  • a burning feeling in your chest, called heartburn
  • trouble swallowing
  • dry cough
  • burping up sour liquid
  • hoarse voice

If the acid reaches your throat, it can cause pain or burning.

Treatment options

GERD is treated with:

Try these lifestyle changes to help relieve symptoms of acid reflux:

  • Maintain a healthy weight. Extra weight puts pressure on your stomach, forcing more acid up into your esophagus.
  • Wear loose-fitting clothing. Tight clothes — especially tight pants — press on your stomach.
  • Eat several small meals a day instead of three big meals.
  • Raise the head of your bed while you sleep. This will prevent acid from flowing upward into your esophagus and throat.
  • Don’t smoke. Smoking weakens the valve that keeps acid in your stomach.
  • Avoid foods and drinks that can trigger heartburn, such as spicy or fatty foods, alcohol, caffeine, chocolate, mint, and garlic.

7. Strep throat

Strep throat is a throat infection caused by bacteria. Usually your throat will be very sore, but it can feel dry, too.

Other symptoms of strep throat include:

  • red and swollen tonsils
  • white patches on your tonsils
  • swollen lymph nodes in the neck
  • fever
  • rash
  • body aches
  • nausea and vomiting

Treatment options

Doctors treat strep throat with antibiotics — drugs that kill bacteria. Your sore throat and other symptoms should improve within two days after you start taking these medications.

Make sure you take the full dose of antibiotics your doctor prescribed. Stopping too early can leave some bacteria alive in your body, which could make you sick again.

To relieve your symptoms, take an over-the-counter pain reliever, like ibuprofen (Advil) or acetaminophen (Tylenol). You can also gargle with a warm water and salt rinse and suck on throat lozenges.

8. Tonsillitis

Tonsillitis is an infection of the tonsils — the two soft growths in the back of your throat that help your body fight infections. Both viruses and bacteria can cause tonsillitis.

Along with a sore throat, symptoms of tonsillitis can also include:

  • red, swollen tonsils
  • white patches on the tonsils
  • fever
  • swollen lymph nodes in the neck
  • hoarse voice
  • bad breath
  • headache

Treatment options

If bacteria caused tonsillitis, your doctor can prescribe antibiotics to treat it. Viral tonsillitis will improve on its own within a week to 10 days.

Here are some things you can do to feel better while you recover:

  • Drink a lot of fluids. Warm drinks like tea and broth are soothing to the throat.
  • Gargle with a mixture of warm water and 1/2 teaspoon of salt a few times a day.
  • Take an over-the-counter pain reliever like acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil).
  • Put on a cool-mist humidifier to add moisture to the air. Dry air can make a sore throat worse.
  • Suck on throat lozenges.
  • Rest until you feel better.

9. Mononucleosis

Mononucleosis, or mono, is a disease that’s caused by a virus. It passes from person to person through saliva. One of the hallmark symptoms of mono is a scratchy throat.

Other symptoms include:

  • tiredness
  • fever
  • swollen lymph nodes in your neck and armpits
  • headache
  • swollen tonsils

Treatment options

Because a virus causes mono, antibiotics won’t treat it. Here are some tips to help you feel better until your body gets over the infection:

  • Get plenty of rest to give your immune system a chance to fight off the virus.
  • Drink extra fluids to avoid dehydration.
  • Take over-the-counter pain medication such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil) to bring down a fever and relieve your sore throat.
  • Suck on a lozenge and gargle with warm salt water to help with throat pain.

When to see your doctor

In some cases, you may be able to relieve your symptoms with home treatment or lifestyle changes. But if your symptoms last longer than a week or worsen, see your doctor. They can make a diagnosis and work with you on a care plan.

You should also see your doctor if you experience more severe symptoms. Severe symptoms include:

  • a severe sore throat that makes it painful to swallow
  • shortness of breath, wheezing
  • rash
  • chest pain
  • excessive tiredness during the day
  • loud snoring at night
  • fever higher than 101°F (38°C)
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