Why Does My Throat Hurt? 10 Sore Throat Causes

Viruses are the most common culprits of sore throats, but what about other health conditions?

Of all the complaints healthcare providers hear in their practices, "I have a sore throat" must be near the top of the list.

A wide array of conditions can cause a throat to hurt, from infections to allergies to acid reflux and even tumors.

Pain is just one symptom of what's typically known as a sore throat. Other symptoms include having a scratchy feeling in your throat or trouble swallowing.

Here's what you need to know about the health conditions causing your sore throat, risk factors, and how to prevent a short throat.

Risk Factors

Anyone can get a sore throat. But you may be more likely to experience pain in your throat if you have any of the following risk factors:

  • Smoking
  • Snoring
  • Certain medications
  • Acid reflux
  • Recently being intubated

How To Prevent a Sore Throat

We cannot wholly keep viruses, allergies, or other causes of sore throats at bay. But you can help prevent sore throats by trying some of the following:

  • Practice proper handwashing.
  • Avoid touching your eyes or mouth.
  • Avoid sharing food, drinking glasses, or utensils.
  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
  • Avoid smoke exposure.

When To Reach Out to a Healthcare Provider

If you have sore throat symptoms, your healthcare provider may want to test you for strep throat or other health conditions. 

Consult a healthcare provider if you experience any of the following symptoms:

  • Difficulty breathing or swallowing
  • Coughing up blood in saliva or phlegm
  • Drooling, which is usually more common in young children than adults
  • Dehydration
  • Swollen or painful joints
  • Skin rash

10 Possible Causes of Sore Throat

Chances are your sore throat will fade in a few days without any real prodding, but there could be trouble if it lingers. Here's a roadmap to what might be causing your throat to hurt.

Viral Infections

Viruses are one of the most common causes of sore throats, said Alan Mensch, MD, senior vice president of medical affairs and medical director at Plainview Hospital in New York state. 

Often, sore throat is a symptom of the common cold or the flu. But viruses that cause mononucleosis, measles, chickenpox, and croup (notable in children for its barking cough) can also produce sore throats. Also, the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 may be causing your sore throat.

To treat sore throats caused by viruses, try some of the following remedies:

  • Gargle with warm salt water.
  • Try over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers, like Tylenol (acetaminophen) or Advil (ibuprofen).
  • Stay hydrated.
  • Use a humidifier or steamer to ease respiratory symptoms.

Most viral infections go away in about a week—except for mononucleosis, which can drag on for weeks or months. 

Protect yourself from viral infections by washing your hands well and often. Don't get too close to people who are sick, and cover your own coughs and sneezes.

Strep Throat

In addition to viruses, bacteria are a common cause of sore throats, said Kathleen Tibbetts, MD, assistant professor of otolaryngology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. And especially in children, strep throat (caused by Streptococcus bacteria) is a common culprit.

In addition to a sore throat, other symptoms of strep throat may include:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Red spots or white patches on the tonsils
  • Swollen lymph nodes

A throat culture will tell you whether you have the infection. And if you do have strep throat, it's essential to treat it.

"We worry about the late complications of strep," said Dr. Mensch. That can include damage to the kidneys and heart valves.

Antibiotics, like penicillin and amoxicillin, usually clear strep throat and other bacterial infections. 

Tonsillitis

Tonsillitis is inflamed and swollen tonsils. A viral or, more commonly, bacterial infection usually causes tonsillitis.

The tonsils are two growths at the back of your throat that form the frontline of your body's immune system. They check out germs entering your body and often become infected.

Tonsillitis may cause a sore throat, as well as other symptoms, like:

  • Red, swollen tonsils
  • White or yellow patches on the tonsils
  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Headache
  • Ear pain
  • Pain when you swallow
  • Tender jaw or throat 

Tonsils can become large enough to obstruct the nasal passages in severe cases. You may experience breathing, swallowing, and sleep difficulties if that happens.

Allergies

About 50 million people in the United States have allergies. Allergies happen when your body has an outsize reaction to specific foreign invaders, like:

  • Dust
  • Pollen
  • Pet dander
  • Mold

Those invaders set off a cascade of symptoms, like a sore throat. Other symptoms of allergies include:

  • A runny or stuffed nose
  • Sneezing
  • Itching

What's more, sore throats from allergies can be made worse by post-nasal drip. Post-nasal drip happens when the mucus usually produced by glands in your nose starts to build up. Then, the mucus trickles down the back of your throat.

Some people may confuse allergy-related sore throats with viral and bacterial sore throats. Still, there are ways to tell them apart.

"Allergies are going to go on longer, and they're not going to have symptoms of fever," explained Dr. Tibbetts. "You may have itchy eyes and a runny nose."

Many allergy-related sore throats also only appear during certain seasons, like fall or spring.

Irritants

Irritants differ from allergies. But they also cause reactions to certain outside elements, like air pollution or cleaning products.

"The allergy mechanism is an immune response," explained Dr. Tibbetts. "An irritation is not an immune reaction. It's just irritating the tissue–and we're seeing more and more of it in urban areas as people are exposed to pollution."

Exposure to certain irritants can make your throat chronically sore. So, if you can, try to avoid them.

Dry Air

Humidity and temperature can both affect the mucous membranes that line your throat. Dry, hot air (like in a heated building) can cause discomfort. Summer air conditioning can have a similarly painful effect on your throat. But in any case, that discomfort tends to be worse first thing in the morning.

"A lot of time in the winter months, you have the heater going, so you're breathing dry air all night," said Dr. Tibbetts. "Use a humidifier in your room at night when you're sleeping." 

You can also heat a pot of water and inhale the soothing steam.

Muscle Strain

Studies have found aerobics instructors and teachers have frequent sore throats. Yelling and screaming can hurt your throat, but so can talking.

Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)

You may not think of a sore throat as a common symptom of acid reflux. Still, it can be, especially when the reflux is chronic, like in gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). 

GERD is a digestive disorder. And your throat is, after all, part of your digestive apparatus.

"Stomach acid is coming up into your esophagus and then sometimes up into the throat," explained Dr. Tibbetts. "Typically, people will have other associated symptoms, like indigestion."

Symptoms can get worse after a big meal. In addition to a sore throat, symptoms of GERD may include:

  • Heartburn
  • Acid reflux
  • Chest pain
  • Nausea
  • Hoarse coughing

There are plenty of OTC and prescription medications to counter GERD. But you can also tame the condition by managing your weight and eating low-fat, low-acid meals.

Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV)

Thanks to highly effective treatments, the number of new human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) cases in the United States has been steadily declining since the 1980s. 

And even HIV-positive people are less likely to actually become sick. That said. But sore throats can still sometimes appear in the collection of HIV symptoms.

Some people with HIV have flu-like symptoms about two to four weeks after infection. In addition to a sore throat, early symptoms of HIV may include:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Rash
  • Night sweats
  • Muscle aches
  • Fatigue
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Mouth ulcers

HIV-positive people may have sore throats due to secondary infections like oral thrush or cytomegalovirus (CMV). 

Tumors

Throat cancer doesn't need to be at the top of your list of things to worry about when you have a sore throat, but it can happen.

"All sites of the throat can be affected from the upper part, the tonsil area, to the back of the tongue to the voice box and the upper part of the esophagus," explained Dr. Tibbetts.

In addition to a sore throat, a tumor can also manifest with other symptoms, like:

  • Lump
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Pain in your ear

Throat pain from a tumor also tends to linger. 

"Viral or bacterial sore throats should get better in days to weeks, but if this is something that lasts weeks to months, that is concerning," said Dr. Tibbetts. 

If you have any of those red flags, see a healthcare provider.

A Quick Review

While most sore throats are caused by a viral infection, such as a cold or the flu, there are several other reasons you might have a sore throat.

Consult a healthcare provider if your symptoms do not improve within a few days or worsen. Less common causes of a sore throat might require treatment.

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