Causes of Sore Throat

Sore throat is mostly caused by infection and can be the precursor to a number of illnesses. There are few effective treatments but the condition is usually self limiting.

Sore throat is highly unpleasant and unfortunately, a very common symptom. The throat inflammation generally affects the pharynx (pharyngitis) – the major part of the throat area – but sometimes it hits the tonsils, just to make things really painful. This is often the case with children.

The condition can be the opening salvo of an illness that affects the whole body – generally a viral infection.

Causes of Sore Throat

Any irritant such as dust or pollen can cause the throat to become inflamed. If you happen to be allergic to the irritant then the symptom is likely to be worse. Inflammation caused by irritation can open the way for subsequent infection. Viruses are the major cause of sore throat and in second place are bacterial infections. Generally speaking if the cause is viral or bacterial the sore throat will be accompanied by a raised temperature.

  • Viral infections: numerous viruses can be the culprit. Cold and flu viruses, glandular fever, mumps, measles are a few examples. Many of these viruses of course will go on to produce their associated systemic illnesses.
  • Bacterial Infections: haemolytic streptococcus is the bacterium most at home in the throat. Neisseria gonorrhoea – the causative agent of gonorrhoea – is a fairly rare cause. In past times diphtheria was a common infection of the throat that killed many children. Thankfully, due to immunization, it’s much less common now.

Complications

As mentioned above many viral sore throats go on to become systemic illnesses. Mumps, flu, measles and glandular fever can be very unpleasant and occasionally serious illnesses. Bacterial infections can move to other areas of the body: the lungs to cause chest infections, the ear to produce otitis media and into the sinuses. Rarely, streptococcal infections may lead to rheumatic fever and kidney disease.

Treatment

Most sore throats will resolve in a few days with no treatment. If the cause is viral, there isn’t an effective treatment anyway. Symptomatic treatment with throat lozenges or soothing drinks is usually recommended.

Most of the bacteria that invade the throat respond to antibiotics, however this sort of treatment is controversial. A review for the Cochrane Collaboration by Del Mar, Glasziou and Spinks on 27 studies found that antibiotics shortened the duration of sore throat by an average of a day.

The authors suggest that antibiotics are of limited use in the treatment of sore throat. They point to the adverse side effects of antibiotics and to the growing problem of resistance and suggest that they are used only in patients where protecting against secondary infection is a priority.

Self-help

There are many herbal preparations said to ease sore throat. One simple remedy is to steep a tablespoonful of rose petals in hot water for ten minutes, then sweeten with honey if desired. Another is to steep two or three slices of fresh ginger root in hot water and again flavour with honey if wanted. If you’re inclined to the hot and spicy you could try just chewing a piece of raw ginger root, it’s said to be effective.

This article is for information only. If you have a sore throat that doesn’t go in a few days or you have other symptoms, then you should pay a visit to your doctor.

References

Medicine, eds. Souhami and Moxham. Churchill Livingston 2002

The Herb Book by John Lust. Bantam Books 1974