What Does It Mean When Your Throat Hurts

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By Andra Picincu/Sept. 7, 2021 6:32 pm EDT

Does your throat hurt when you swallow? Do you also have a fever, joint pain, or swollen lymph glands in the neck? Depending on your symptoms, you may be dealing with a common cold or something more serious, such as strep throat. But the cause is not always obvious. Vaping, for example, can lead to throat pain and irritation. Propylene glycol (PG), diacetyl, and other compounds in vaping juice are usually to blame, explains Verywell Health. Nicotine withdrawal may cause a sore throat, too.

Another potential cause is COVID-19. If that’s your case, you may also have other symptoms in addition to throat pain. “Only about 5-10% of COVID-19 patients will have [a sore throat]. Usually, they will have a touch of fever, loss of taste and smell, and difficulty breathing,” Dr. Brian Curtis told OSF HealthCare. He recommends seeing a medical professional if your symptoms persist longer than a week. In some cases, throat pain may indicate an infection, allergies, or inflammation.

If your throat hurts, you may have tonsillitis

Tonsillitis, a type of pharyngitis, affects most people at least once in life, according to the Cleveland Clinic. This condition causes inflammation of the tonsils, leading to throat pain, fever, swollen lymph nodes, and difficulty swallowing. Children may also experience stomach pain and vomiting. About 70% of all cases are due to viral infections. The remaining 30% are caused by bacteria, such as group A Streptococcus (via Cleveland Clinic).

Strep throat, or bacterial tonsillitis, is a mild, but painful infection. In addition to throat pain, it may cause headaches, nausea, fever, and red spots on the roof of your mouth (via Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). The bacteria can spread from one person to another through sneezing or coughing. If your sore throat is caused by a virus, you’ll experience nasal congestion, coughing, and hoarseness.

Bacterial tonsillitis is usually treated with penicillin or other antibiotics. If left unaddressed, it may become chronic or cause complications, such as abscesses, sinusitis, or scarlet fever. Viral tonsillitis, on the other hand, does not respond to antibiotics. Your doctor may recommend throat lozenges, OTC pain relievers, and plenty of rest, notes the Cleveland Clinic. Symptoms usually go away within 10 days or so. Stay on the safe side and see a doctor if your throat hurts for longer than two days. 

Allergies may cause a sore throat

Throat pain may also be due to allergies, points out the Cleveland Clinic. When you are allergic to pollen, mold, or dust mites, the mucus from your nose can irritate the throat and cause discomfort. For example, pet allergies may cause an itchy throat, coughing, sneezing, nasal congestion, shortness of breath, and red or watery eyes (via The Ohio State University). Most symptoms affect the skin, nose, throat, eyes, and lungs.

Sometimes, allergens cause inflammation in the back of your throat, explains Dr. Evan Li (via Health). Other times, throat pain is due to coughing, a common symptom of allergic reactions. But how can you tell the difference between a common cold and allergies? “Cold symptoms typically last only a few days, while allergy symptoms will often last several weeks to months,” says Dr. Li. A common cold can also cause muscle aches and yellow mucus. If you have an allergic reaction, you won’t experience these issues.  

In rare cases, throat pain may be caused by a tumor or abscess, warns the Cleveland Clinic. Acid reflux can trigger this symptom, too. Your throat may also hurt if you smoke or sleep with your mouth open at night. The best thing you can do is to take note of your symptoms and see a doctor sooner rather than later. Severe throat pain, fatigue, rashes, body aches, or lumps at the back of the throat may indicate a more serious problem and require medical attention. 

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