Throat Ulcers

Medically reviewed by Judith Marcin, MD on July 20, 2017Written by Stephanie Watson on July 20, 2017

Overview

Throat ulcers are open sores in your throat. Sores can also form in your esophagus — the tube that connects your throat to your stomach — and on your vocal cords. You can get an ulcer when an injury or illness causes a break in the lining of your throat, or when a mucous membrane breaks open and doesn’t heal.

Throat sores can become red and swollen. They can make it hard for you to eat and talk.

Causes

Throat ulcers can be caused by:

  • chemotherapy and radiation treatment for cancer
  • infection with yeast, bacteria, or a virus
  • oropharyngeal cancer, which is cancer in the part of your throat that’s right behind your mouth
  • herpangina, a viral illness in children that causes sores to form in their mouth and back of their throat
  • Behçet syndrome, a condition that causes inflammation in your skin, the lining of your mouth, and in other parts of the body

Esophageal ulcers may result from:

Vocal cord ulcers (also called granulomas) can be caused by:

  • irritation from excess talking or singing
  • gastric reflux
  • repeated upper respiratory infections
  • an endotracheal tube placed in your throat to help you breathe during surgery

Symptoms

You might have these symptoms along with throat ulcers. If so, see your doctor.

  • mouth sores
  • trouble swallowing
  • white or red patches in your throat
  • fever
  • pain in your mouth or throat
  • lump in your neck
  • bad breath
  • trouble moving your jaw
  • heartburn
  • chest pain

Treatment

Which treatment your doctor prescribes depends on what’s causing the throat ulcers. Your treatment might include:

  • antibiotics or antifungals prescribed by your doctor to treat a bacterial or yeast infection
  • pain relievers such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) to relieve discomfort from the ulcers
  • medicated rinses to help with pain and healing

To treat an esophageal ulcer, you might need to take:

  • antacids, H2 receptor blockers, or proton pump inhibitors (over the counter or prescription) to neutralize stomach acid or reduce the amount of acid your stomach makes
  • antibiotics or antiviral medicines to treat an infection

Vocal cord ulcers are treated by:

  • resting your voice
  • undergoing vocal therapy
  • treating GERD
  • getting surgery if other treatments don’t help

To relieve the pain from throat sores, you can also try these home treatments:

  • Avoid spicy, hot, and acidic foods. These foods can irritate the sores even more.
  • Avoid medicines that can irritate your throat, such as aspirin (Bufferin), ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB), and alendronic acid (Fosamax).
  • Drink cold fluids or suck on something cold, like ice chips or a popsicle, to soothe the sores.
  • Drink extra fluids, especially water, throughout the day.
  • Ask your doctor whether you should use a numbing rinse or medicine to relieve throat pain.
  • Gargle with warm salt water or a mixture of salt, water, and baking soda.
  • Don’t smoke tobacco or use alcohol. These substances can also increase irritation.

Prevention

You might not be able to prevent some causes of throat sores, such as cancer treatment. Other causes may be more preventable.

Reduce your risk for infection: Maintain good hygiene by washing your hands often throughout the day — especially before you eat and after you use the bathroom. Stay away from anyone who looks sick. Also, try to keep up to date with your vaccinations.

Exercise and eat healthy: To prevent GERD, stick to a healthy weight. Extra weight can press on your stomach and force acid up into your esophagus. Eat several smaller meals instead of three large ones daily. Avoid foods that trigger acid reflux, such as spicy, acidic, fatty, and fried foods. Raise the head of your bed while you sleep to keep acid down in your stomach.

Adjust medications if necessary: Ask your doctor if any of the medicines you take can cause throat ulcers. If so, see if you can adjust the dose, adjust how you take it, or switch to another drug.

Don’t smoke: It increases your risk for cancer, which can contribute to throat ulcers. Smoking also irritates your throat and weakens the valve that keeps acid from backing up into your esophagus.

When to see your doctor

See your doctor if throat ulcers don’t go away in a few days, or if you have other symptoms, such as:

  • painful swallowing
  • rash
  • fever, chills
  • heartburn
  • decreased urination (a sign of dehydration)

Call 911 or get medical attention right away for these more serious symptoms:

  • trouble breathing or swallowing
  • coughing or vomiting up blood
  • chest pain
  • high fever — over 104˚F (40˚C)

Outlook

Your outlook depends on what condition caused the throat ulcers and how it was treated.

  • Esophageal ulcers should heal within a few weeks. Taking medicines to reduce stomach acid can speed healing.
  • Throat ulcers caused by chemotherapy should heal once you finish cancer treatment.
  • Vocal cord ulcers should improve with rest after a few weeks.
  • Infections usually go away within a week or two. Antibiotics and antifungal medication can help a bacterial or yeast infection clear up faster.
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