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Sore Throat: Characteristics, Causes & Treatment

Sore Throat
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What is a Sore Throat?

A sore throat is medically described as pharyngitis or an acute upper respiratory tract infection. The source of the pain is inflammation in the back of the throat (pharynx), on the tonsils, the back of the tongue and/or the soft palate (x, x).

A sore throat is hard to ignore, especially when it hurts to swallow food and liquids. Fortunately, it’s not hard to find relief, either from the home remedy shelf or a physician, depending on what is causing the problem.

Sore Throat Characteristics

Sore throats most often impact school-going youngsters and occur mostly in autumn and winter. Few people avoid ever getting a sore throat, while some get it more often than once a year (x, x).

If your sore throat is due to an infection, you may also have a cough, headache, fever and feel drained and unwell in general. Or you may only experience scratchiness or discomfort in your throat, while painful swelling can interfere with swallowing, talking and sleeping. An itchy throat may be a sign of a developing viral or bacterial infection, or point to some kind of allergy (x, x, x, x).

If you have a sore throat on one side only, it may be due to one of the following:

  • A postnasal drip
  • Tonsillitis (inflammation of the tonsils)
  • An abscess near the tonsils
  • An injury to the throat from sharp-edged food or a burn from hot liquid
  • A breathing or feeding tube inserted in hospital (x)

How long does a sore throat last? Strep throat and pharyngitis caused by a virus will usually heal completely on their own within about a week, without after-effects (x, x, x).

Less often, a sore throat can cause complications such as middle-ear infection, acute sinus infection, quinsy (pus at the back of the throat), rheumatic fever or kidney inflammation (x).

Causes of Sore Throat

A sore throat is one of those symptoms — such as headache — which can be caused by different ailments. In about 90 percent of cases, however, it is due to a viral infection (x).

The Common Cold

When a sore throat develops, the culprit is often the common cold. This is a viral infection with other symptoms including a runny or blocked nose, sneezing, coughing, body aches, a slight fever and sometimes laryngitis (inflammation of the voice box) (x, x, x).

The Flu

The flu is a viral infection. Symptoms include laryngitis, a dry cough, blocked nose, fever with chills and sweating, aching muscles and tiredness (x, x).

Allergies

Allergies can cause a sore throat due to a postnasal drip which irritates the throat. Typical allergens are pet dander, mold, dust, pollen or a specific medication (x, x).

Croup

An infection which causes a cough or sore throat in an adult may cause the characteristic croup “barking cough” and hoarseness in young children. The voice box (larynx) and windpipe (trachea) are inflamed and breathing may be difficult. Croup is also known as laryngotracheobronchitis (x).

Other Causes of Sore Throat

  • Strep throat is an infection by the bacterium Streptococcus pyogenes, or group A streptococcus. Symptoms include tonsillitis, white spots in the throat, painful swallowing and swollen lymph glands in the neck, without any coughing (x, x).
  • Tonsillitis is caused by a viral or bacterial infection. Symptoms include fever and difficulty swallowing (x).
  • Quinsy, a complication of tonsillitis, covers the back of the throat in pus and may make it difficult to open the mouth (x).
  • Hand, foot and mouth disease produces sores in the mouth and a rash on the hands and feet (x).
Sore Throat Causes

Sore Throat Remedies and Supplements

Many people simply treat a sore throat at home with an analgesic such as acetaminophen. When there is no improvement after two weeks, or there are severe symptoms, medical advice or even emergency help should be sought. Examples of worrying signs are a fever above 101°F, drooling, bleeding, lumps in the neck, difficulty breathing, inability to drink fluids and earache (x, x, x).

For those who want to ease the sore throat accompanying a cold or the flu with an alternative treatment, there are several home remedies with proven therapeutic properties available, including herbal teas for sore throat.

As with all supplements meant to promote general well-being, it is important to note that the remedies listed here are by no means a substitute for legitimate medical advice. It is always best to talk to a doctor if you are experiencing problems with your health before taking any supplements.

Marshmallow Root

Marshmallow root extract powder is not an ingredient of marshmallow candy, but a natural anti-inflammatory compound taken from the marshmallow plant root. It is used to relieve allergies, cold symptoms and stomach ache. It is also a folk remedy for reflux and heartburn (x).

A gelatin-like substance within the marshmallow root coats and lubricates the lining of the stomach and throat, easing inflammation, pain and irritation. In one study, marshmallow root was proven effective for this use. In others, it was shown to be a fast-acting remedy for coughing and throat irritation (x, x, x).

Marshmallow root extract powder has very few side effects as long as the suggested serving is not exceeded — 1,200 mg (about ¼ teaspoon) to be taken once or twice daily, or as directed by a physician. Marshmallow root may affect blood sugar levels and should not be taken before or after surgery. Before using this supplement, consultation with a physician is recommended.

Licorice Root

Licorice root extract powder may ease coughs and headaches, promote digestion and boost the immune system. In studies, licorice was found to have properties similar to aspirin which ease throat pain. It was also effective in significantly relieving pain caused by the removal of breathing tubes (x).

The recommended dosage for licorice extract powder is 600 mg (scant ¼ teaspoon) daily, or as directed by a physician. The product is not intended for long-term use. Common side effects may include fatigue, low potassium levels and water retention. Provided the suggested serving size is not exceeded, this product should be safe for use by healthy adults. However, pregnant and nursing women should not use it. Licorice root naturally contains glycyrrhizin which may elevate the heart rate. Do not exceed the dosage, take the product if you are on a high-sodium diet or have existing heart problems. Always consult with a physician.

Ginger

Ginger root extract powder is an age-old remedy with proven healing properties. It comes from the same botanical family as cardamom and turmeric, and has been used for thousands of years. The rhizome contains gingerol, a bioactive compound with antioxidant and antacid effects.

Possessing many health benefits, ginger is mostly recognized for its soothing anti-inflammatory effects on the digestion and promotion of gastro-intestinal health. In one study, it was shown to have antibacterial properties as well, significantly reducing disease-causing bacteria in the throat (x).

The dosage for ginger root extract powder is 1,000 mg (about ½ teaspoon) daily, taken with at least 8 ounces of water to prevent heartburn, or as directed by a physician. For the average healthy adult, side effects of excess ginger include heartburn and mild stomach discomfort. Although ginger has been used to relieve morning sickness, pregnant and nursing women should consult with a physician before taking this product. Ginger can lower blood sugar and anyone taking diabetes medication, or who has taken it, should consult with a physician before using ginger.

Chamomile

Chamomile extract powder is not only an anti-inflammatory and anti-histamine, but also a calming agent and digestive aid. It promotes healthy skin and provides relief from premenstrual symptoms. Studies have shown it to be effective in relieving pain, fighting infection and improving sleep (x).

Chamomile, a member of the daisy family, naturally contains flavonoids and terpenoids. Its main active compounds possess many health benefits.

The dosage for chamomile extract powder is 800 mg with water once or twice daily, or as directed by a physician. It can cause drowsiness; use with caution and do not drive or operate heavy machinery if you experience these effects. Anyone with ragweed allergies should not take chamomile. Pregnant and nursing women should consult with a physician before taking this product.

Honey

Besides having potent antibacterial properties, honey keeps wounds moist when applied directly as well as creating a protective coating against infection. It has also been proven an effective painkiller after tonsillectomy (x, x).

Tualang and manuka honeys are deemed more potent than other varieties. In one study, undiluted tualang honey taken by mouth was found to speed up healing of strep throat. In a different study, manuka honey was seen to slow down the reproduction of the flu virus (x, x).

Another study found that honey reduced coughing in children and helped them sleep. Infants younger than a year should not consume honey due to the possibility of botulism infection (x).

Strep Throat Remedies

Strep throat responds well to antibiotics and this treatment is recommended to prevent complications such as scarlet fever, acute rheumatic fever, abscess formation, post-streptococcal glomerulonephritis, or streptococcal toxic shock syndrome (x).

Over-the-counter pain medications such as acetaminophen, as well as herbal teas such as licorice root extract tea, can ease a sore throat until the antibiotics clear the infection (x).

What to Eat with a Sore Throat

Soft foods and liquids are preferable to crunchy, rough-textured foods that will irritate the throat. The best foods for a sore throat are easy-to-swallow meals and snacks such as soups, broth, mashed foods, soft-cooked pasta and sauce, smoothies, shakes, jello and yogurt. Avoid spicy, sour and salty foods (x, x).

Drinking plenty of liquids keeps the throat hydrated, which helps it heal. Avoid hot foods and drinks, although some people find ice-cold popsicles soothing. Caffeine and alcohol are dehydrating and therefore not recommended (x, x, x).

The Bottom Line

A sore throat is most often the result of a virus and heals in about a week. During this time, various natural remedies can help ease the pain, soothe the irritation and improve healing. Report severe symptoms to a physician immediately.

About the author

Mia Simpson


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