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Pharyngitis

Pharyngitis, or sore throat, is discomfort, pain, or scratchiness in the throat. It often makes it painful to swallow.

Alternative Names

Pharyngitis - bacterial; Sore throat

Causes, incidence, and risk factors

Pharyngitis is caused by swelling in the back of the throat (pharynx) between the tonsils and the (larynx).

Most sore throats are caused by colds or the flu. Coxsackie virus or mononucleosis can also cause sore throat.

Throat anatomy

Bacteria that can cause pharyngitis in some cases.

  • Strep throat  is caused by group A streptococcus.
  • Less commonly, bacteria such as corynebacterium, gonorrhea, and chlamydia can cause sore throat.

Most cases of pharyngitis occur during the colder months. The illness often spreads among family members.

Symptoms

The main symptom is a sore throat.

Other symptoms may include:

Signs and tests

Your health care provider will perform a physical exam and look at your throat.

A rapid test or throat culture to test for strep throat may be done. Other laboratory tests may be done depending on the suspected cause.

Treatment

Most sore throats are caused by viruses. A few of these illnesses (such as some types of influenza) may be helped by antiviral medicines.

Antibiotics do not help viral sore throats.  Using these medicines to treat viral infections helps strengthen bacteria and make them resistant to antibiotics.

Sore throats should only be treated with antibiotics if a strep test is positive. Strep cannot be accurately diagnosed by symptoms or a physical exam alone.

The following tips may help your sore throat feel better:

  • Drink warm liquids such as lemon tea or tea with honey.
  • Gargle several times a day with warm salt water (1/2 tsp of salt in 1 cup water).
  • Drink cold liquids or suck on frozen fruit-flavored ice pops.
  • Suck on hard candies or throat lozenges. Young children should not be given such products because they can choke on them.
  • Use a cool-mist vaporizer or humidifier can moisten and soothe a dry and painful throat.
  • Try over-the-counter pain medications, such as acetaminophen.

Complications

Complications may include:

  • Ear infection
  • Sinusitis
  • Abscess near the tonsils

Calling your health care provider

Call your health care provider if:

  • You develop a sore throat that does not go away after several days
  • You have a high fever, swollen lymph nodes in your neck, or a rash

Seek immediate medical care if you have a sore throat and trouble breathing.

References

Wessels MR. Streptococcal pharyngitis. N Engl J Med. 2011;354:648-655.

Frye R, Bailey J, Blevins AE. Clinical inquiries. Which treatments provide the most relief for pharyngitis pain? J Fam Pract. 2011 May;60(5):293-4.

Shulman ST, Bisno AL, Clegg HW, et al. Clinical practice guideline for the diagnosis and management of group A streptococcal pharyngitis: 2012 update by the Infectious Diseases Society of America. Clin Infect Dis. 2012;55(10):e86-e102.

Updated: 4/13/2013

Linda J. Vorvick, MD, Medical Director, MEDEX Northwest Division of Physician Assistant Studies, University of Washington, School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.


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