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Sore Throat

Alternate Names

  • pharyngitis
  • Pharynx

Definition

A sore throat is an inflammation or infection of the pharynx. The pharynx is the part of the throat between the mouth and the larynx, or voice box. The tonsils are in the pharynx.

What is going on in the body?

A sore throat usually comes on suddenly, and is called acute. Some people have an ongoing, or chronic, form of the condition.

Risks

What are the causes and risks of the condition?

A sore throat can occur in viral infections such as the common cold, influenza, and infectious mononucleosis. Another cause may be bacteria such as Group A Streptococcus. This kind of sore throat is often called strep throat. Sexually transmitted diseases such as gonorrhea can cause sore throat.
A chronic sore throat may be caused by constant irritation from smoking, breathing heavily polluted air, consuming too much alcohol, by swallowing substances that scald or scratch the throat, or in a person who suffers from allergies, by the drainage of fluid into the throat from the back of the nasal cavity.

Prevention

What can be done to prevent the condition?

Avoiding irritation of the throat can sometimes prevent a sore throat.

Diagnosed

How is the condition diagnosed?

A throat culture can distinguish a sore throat due to bacterial infection, from other causes, usually viral.

Long Term Effects

What are the long-term effects of the condition?

Untreated strep throat may lead to rheumatic fever. Rheumatic fever is an inflammation of the joints and the heart resulting from a streptococcal infection. Some types of sore throat may cause difficulty breathing due to swelling, spread of the infection to nearby tissues, or the formation of abscesses.

Other Risks

What are the risks to others?

A sore throat caused by Group A streptococcus is contagious. A sore throat caused by a sexually transmitted bacterial infection is also contagious, as are sore throats caused by many viruses.

Treatments

What are the treatments for the condition?

A sore throat caused by a virus is treated only to relieve symptoms. Antibiotics have no effect on viruses. A warm salt-water gargle and throat lozenges can help reduce pain and inflammation. Over-the-counter pain medications such as acetaminophen (i.e., Tylenol) can be used to treat pain and fever. Children and adolescents under 18 with a suspected viral infection should never be given aspirin, because of the risk of a rare but very serious neurological condition known as Reye syndrome.
The person should drink plenty of liquids. A sore throat caused by bacteria is treated with antibiotics. The full course of antibiotics should be taken, even if the symptoms improve before the medication is gone. A chronic sore throat is treated by eliminating the cause of the inflammation.

Side Effects

What are the side effects of the treatments?

Antibiotics may cause stomach upset, diarrhea, or an allergic reaction.

After Treatment

What happens after treatment for the condition?

Sore throats usually clear up within a few days.

Monitor

How is the condition monitored?

Any new or worsening symptoms should be reported to the healthcare professional.

Sources

Illustrated Encyclopedia of Natural Resources, Shealy. Alternative Medicine Self-Care Guide, Time-Life. Take Care of Yourself, Fries. Merck Manual of Medical Information, 1997.

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