What is the throat?
Your throat runs from the back of your mouth
to the top of your respiratory and digestive tracts, it comprises
the tonsils, larynx and pharynx.
Your throat has an important function - it helps to filter out potentially
which can lead to infection.
A = Pharynx
B = Uvula
C = Tongue
D = Tonsils
What is a sore throat?
No matter what age you are, everybody at some
time has experienced a sore throat. Inflammation of the tissues in the larynx, pharynx and tonsils cause the symptoms
we associate with sore throats.
Uncomplicated sore throats usually last up to 3 days and are commonly
linked with the flu and colds. Coughing, which is a symptom of both infections can aggravate
the throat and make it feel worse.
A severe sore throat, that lasts over 3 days
could be a symptom of a more serious condition like tonsillitis
(see below) or laryngitis and you should see your doctor. Sore throats also accompany many
viral infections such as measles, mumps, chicken
fever and whooping
cough. All these conditions are highly contagious and can cause epidemics, especially during the winter months.
What causes a sore throat?
Sore throats are normally caused by either a
viral or bacterial infection. The most important difference between
a virus and bacteria is that bacteria respond well to antibiotic treatment and viruses do not. A sore throat is commonly spread by:
sharing drinks, kissing, coughing, nose blowing, and sneezing.
Viral sore throats
The majority of sore throats are caused by a
viral infection, like those which cause colds and flu. These are
most common in the winter, when we spend more time indoors in contact
with other people, enabling germs to spread rapidly. A viral infection
can lead to a more serious bacterial infection once the immune
system has been weakened. When your sore throat is caused by
a viral infection there is no immediate treatment. Fortunately,
viral infections usually only last a few days as the body is normally
able to fight off the infection by itself.
Bacterial sore throats
Bacteria can cause more serious sore throats,
that can lead to conditions such as tonsillitis or ear
infections. Bacteria can cause the throat to become very
inflamed and sore. In most cases antibiotic treatment prescribed
from your doctor will be the only successful treatment to help reduce
The bacteria that causes the majority of sore
throats, is called streptococcus group A (strep A). Somebody who
has a strep sore throat might have a sore throat with a fever that
starts suddenly, without a cough or cold symptoms. Strep throat
is very common in children.
What is tonsillitis?
Tonsillitis is an infection of the lumpy tissue
(tonsils) either side of the throat towards the back of the tongue.
The tonsils and the back of the throat may look red, swollen and
dotted with white/yellow specks of pus.
When the tonsils become infected you may also experience a high
temperature, headache and feel generally unwell. Tonsillitis may
be caused by either a virus or bacteria but the symptoms will be
the same no matter which germ causes the infection. When bacteria
cause tonsillitis it is nearly always from strep A bacteria.
Other reasons for a sore throat include:
- Pollution - contaminates the air we breathe
and can irritate the throat.
- Allergy - hay
fever and allergy sufferers may get an irritated throat during an allergy attack.
- Cigarette smoke - is a major irritant of
the airways and makes both viral and bacterial infection more
- Changes in temperature - such as going from
warm centrally heated rooms to the icy outdoors can affect the
- Overuse of the vocal cords - through singing
or shouting, can lead to inflammation.
Symptoms of a sore throat caused by bacteria
or a virus can include:
- Painful red throat.
- Swollen tonsils.
- Difficulty in swallowing.
- Swollen lymph
glands and neck stiffness.
It is almost impossible to predict from the
look of the throat, or the severity of the pain whether the cause
is bacteria or a virus and a throat swab will usually need to be
taken to confirm a diagnosis.
Most viruses subside in a few days and treatment
is not necessary, antibiotics are not given to relieve throat pain
in general, and usually the best advice would be to let nature take
People with a sore throat caused by bacteria
can be treated very easily with a course of antibiotics prescribed
by a doctor. Treatment is essential with bacteria infection to prevent
more serious conditions developing.
What can I do to make my sore throat better?
Whether your sore throat is due to bacteria
or a virus, the following will help to relieve your symptoms:
- Drink plenty of non-alcoholic fluids.
- Gargle with warm salty water.
- If you have a temperature take paracetamol
to reduce it.
- Adults may try gargling with soluble aspirin
before swallowing it.
- Suck throat lozenges (available from chemists
and some supermarkets).
- Use throat sprays (available from chemists
and some supermarkets).
- Do not smoke.
- Avoid alcohol.
When do I need to see a doctor?
- You are finding
it difficult and almost impossible to swallow.
- Symptoms persist for more than 4 days.
- The glands in your neck are swollen.
- You have a persistent fever over 38.3 °C
- You have pus on your tonsils.
- You have any difficulty in breathing.
- You have a stiff neck and severe headache.
- You have an earache.
- If a rash develops.
- There is blood in saliva or phlegm.
- You have mouth ulcers
lasting for over 2 weeks.
- If the phlegm you have coughed up is either
green or yellow.