What is throat pain?
Throat pain may be general or specific to a structure within the throat, such as your tonsils or voice box (larynx). Sometimes soreness or irritation at the back of the tongue can also register as throat pain.
The types of disorders that can cause throat pain include pharyngitis, tonsillitis, and, in rare cases, throat cancer. Inflammation of the throat is commonly caused by viral or bacterial infections. A common bacterial infection of the throat is due to Streptococcus pyogenes, or group A Streptococcus, known as strep throat. Infectious mononucleosis is a type of viral infection that produces characteristic throat pain.
Your throat can also be irritated or become sore as a result of allergies, voice straining, vomiting, or gastric reflux, a condition in which stomach acids flow upward into the throat.
Throat pain, in itself, is not life threatening and may resolve on its own. However, if your pain lasts more than several days, and if it is accompanied by other symptoms, you should contact a medical professional to identify the cause. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) for serious symptoms such as choking or severe difficulty breathing, which may be combined with pale or blue lips and fast heart rate (tachycardia), high fever (higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit), sudden swelling of the tongue or throat structures, change in level of consciousness or alertness, or a change in mental status or sudden behavior change.
Seek prompt medical care if you have a persistent or mucus-producing cough with sore throat, white patches and redness in your mouth or throat, a persistent fever, or a persistent feeling of something stuck in the throat.
What other symptoms might occur with throat pain?
Throat pain may accompany other symptoms, depending on the underlying disorder. Symptoms that frequently affect the throat may also involve other body systems.
Symptoms of an infection that may occur along with throat pain
Throat pain may accompany other symptoms affecting the respiratory system including:
Coughing up clear, yellow, light brown, or green mucus
Enlarged lymph nodes
Pus or white patches covering the tonsils or throat
White patches on the tongue or mucus membranes of the mouth
Gastrointestinal symptoms that may occur along with throat pain
Throat pain may accompany symptoms related to the gastrointestinal system including:
- Difficulty swallowing
Other symptoms that may occur along with throat pain
Throat pain may accompany symptoms related to other body systems. Such symptoms include:
Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition
In some cases, throat pain may be a symptom of a life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of these life-threatening symptoms:
Change in level of consciousness or alertness, such as passing out or unresponsiveness
Confusion or loss of consciousness, even for a brief moment
High fever (higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit)
Joint pain or jerky movements
Sudden swelling of the tongue or throat structures
What causes throat pain?
Among the most common causes of throat pain are infectious diseases, certain cancers, voice straining, tobacco use, and exposure to toxic chemicals or other injuries.
Infectious causes of throat pain
Throat pain may be caused by infectious disorders including:
Abscess (infected sore) around the tonsils or back of the throat
Acute HIV infection
Mononucleosis (viral infection)
Other viral and bacterial infections
Rhinosinusitis (postnasal drip)
Strep throat (bacterial throat infection)
Tonsillitis (inflammation of the tonsils in the back of the throat)
Injury-related causes of throat pain
In some cases, throat pain may be a symptom of an injury to the throat. Injuries to the throat may be due to multiple causes including:
- Acid reflux from gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
- Chemical exposure
- Excessive throat clearing
- Foreign body in throat
- Radiation treatment for head and neck cancer
- Tobacco use
- Voice strain
Serious or life-threatening causes of throat pain
In some cases, throat pain may be a symptom of a serious or life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. These include:
Cancers of the throat and esophagus
Toxic chemical exposure
Questions for diagnosing the cause of throat pain
To diagnose your condition, your doctor or licensed health care practitioner will ask you several questions related to your throat pain including:
How long have you had your throat pain?
Do you have any other symptoms?
Are you having difficulty swallowing?
Have you noticed any white patches or pus in your mouth or throat?
Have you had a cough?
Have you had any congestion or difficulty breathing?
Have you experienced any fever or chills?
Have you had any vomiting?
What medications are you taking?
Have you been exposed to any chemicals or fumes?
Because throat pain can be due to serious diseases, failure to seek treatment can result in serious complications and permanent damage. Once the underlying cause is diagnosed, it is important for you to follow the treatment plan that you and your health care professional design specifically for you to reduce the risk of potential complications including:
- Inability to swallow
- Loss of or permanent damage to voice
- Spread of cancer
- Spread of infection