What causes sore throat?

Many conditions and factors cause sore throat, also called pharyngitis. You may feel pain and irritation anywhere in the back of your mouth, on your tonsils, and down your neck. You may also have a fever, swollen lymph nodes in your neck, and a headache or earache.

Common causes of a sore throat include:

  • Viral infection: Most often, sore throats happen as a result of a viral infection, such as the flu or the common cold. Sore throats also occur with hand, foot, and mouth disease (caused by the Coxsackie virus) and mononucleosis (caused by the Epstein-Barr virus). Depending on the type of virus, symptoms typically go away on their own within a week to 10 days. Some viruses cause symptoms for a few months (for example, “mono”). Antibiotic medications do not work on viruses.
  • Tonsillitis: Tonsils are the two small lumps of soft tissue at the back of your throat. They trap the germs that make you sick. Tonsillitis occurs when your tonsils become infected and inflamed. Bacteria and viruses can cause tonsillitis.
  • Bacterial infection: Strep throat is an infection caused by a group of bacteria called group A Streptococcus. Symptoms of strep include fever and red, swollen tonsils. Your doctor can prescribe antibiotics to treat strep throat. Less common causes of bacterial sore throat include chlamydia, gonorrhea and corynbacterium.
  • Allergies: Allergies to pollen, dust mites, pets, or mold can make your throat dry and scratchy. Sore throat from allergies results from postnasal drip (when mucus from your nose drips down the back of your throat). The mucus irritates your throat and causes pain.
  • Acid reflux: People with a condition called gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) feel burning and pain in their throat. This pain, called heartburn, happens when acid from the stomach backs up into the esophagus. The esophagus is the tube that carries food from your throat to your stomach.
  • Overuse or irritants: Yelling, screaming, singing without proper form, or talking too much without resting can lead to a sore throat. Spicy foods, smoking, and hot liquids can burn or irritate your throat.
  • Excessive dryness: If you sleep with your mouth open at night, you may wake up with a sore throat. Being congested (clogged up) due to a cold, flu or allergies can force you to breathe through your mouth.

Less common but more serious causes of sore throat are abscess (pockets of pus around the tonsils), infection of the epiglottis (the small flap that covers the entrance to the voice box and windpipe during swallowing) and tumors.

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