Medically known as “pharyngitis”, sore throat is the layman’s term to describe an infection that causes the throat to feel scratchy, tender, swollen, or painful. It normally occurs when inflammation begins to form on the pharynx, hence its name.
Irritation caused by a sore throat leads to discomfort that intensifies when swallowing food and liquids. Apart from throat pain, sore throats also instigate a variety of symptoms that largely depend on the underlying cause of infection.
What Causes Sore Throat Infections?
Several factors can trigger sore throats. Different types of sore throats also exist, and they’re often classified according to the cause of infection. These include:
- Viral and Bacterial Pathogens
In most cases, a sore throat is just one symptom that manifests due to a bacterial or viral infection. Viruses that cause upper respiratory infection account for the majority of cases and there are several viral pathogens that can lead to a sore throat. The most common ones include:
- Rhinovirus and coronavirus
These viruses usually cause common cold and flu. They’re also responsible for a quarter of all sore throat infections.
Parainfluenza is the causative agent of Croup, which is an illness that mostly affects children. It is often characterized by a harsh, bark-like cough.
- Epstein-Barr Virus
This is the virus that’s responsible for mononucleosis infection and glandular fever.
- Mumps Virus
The mumps virus causes the swelling of the salivary glands and swallowing food or drinks becomes a very painful process.
- Varicella-zoster virus
This is the causative agent of chicken pox, which is a condition associated with skin sores.
The viral pathogen that leads to measles, a disease characterized with fever and a distinctive rush.
- Herpes Simplex Virus 1
Herpes simplex virus is the causative agent of cold sores on the skin, particularly around the mouth and lips. It also causes the lymph nodes in the neck to swell and a bad case of sore throat in some instances.
Although not as common, some bacterial microorganisms can cause sore throats as well. These include:
- Streptococcal Bacteria
These pathogens lead to a less common infection called strep throat.
- Bordetella Pertussis
This is the same bacterium responsible for whooping cough. It normally attacks the respiratory mucous membrane to cause an inflamed throat infection.
- Diphtheriae Bacterium
The diphtheria bacterium is known to bring about sore throat infection.
Once an infection occurs, be it viral or bacterial, two types of sore throats that can develop. The first one is pharyngitis, which normally causes inflammation of the oropharynx (the area at the back of your throat). The other type of infection is tonsillitis, which generally leads to inflammation of tonsils, the two lumps of tissue at the back of your mouth where the throat begins.
- Allergens and Environmental Factors
Throat infections are not always viral or bacterial. They can also develop after an individual is exposed to certain irritants or environments that irritate the throat. For instance, if you’re allergic to pollen, dust, pet hair, or molds, you may then experience a sore throat as your body’s way of fighting off the irritation.
Furthermore, allergens that irritate the upper respiratory system usually trigger post-nasal drip. When excess mucus accumulates at the back of your throat, tissues around the pharynx will start to swell and may become painful.
Some people develop sore throats from drinking cold beverages or when exposed to cold weather. Throat irritation rates tend to increase during winter months since dry and heated indoor air can make the throat feel scratchy and rough.
Other causes of infection include breathing through your mouth due to nasal congestion, breathing cigarette smoke, chewing tobacco, drinking alcohol, eating spicy food, and exposure to chemical irritants.
- Blocked Nose (Sore Throat at Night)
Some people suffer from sore throat at night that goes away during the day. When a person suffers from a blocked nasal cavity and breathes through the mouth due to that or habitually while fast asleep then the body gets its required oxygen through the mouth. By using mouth to breathe, dry air is allowed to enter mouth cavity. This in turn causes moist throat tissues to dry up, resulting in the irritation of the throat.
Sore throat is a common symptom of Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD), a disorder in which stomach acid flows back into the food pipe. In this case, infections come about when stomach acid irritates the throat. Throat pain may also be accompanied with other GERD symptoms like bitterness or sourness in the mouth, hoarseness in the voice, burning sensation or the feeling of a lump in the throat, and heartburn.
- Other Causes
Other factors that trigger or increase the risk of sore throat infections include:
- Straining of The Throat muscles
Just like other muscles in the body, your throat muscles can also become sore when you overwork them. The only difference is that the soreness will not result from intense exercising, but rather the strain of yelling or talking too much.
People who suffer from cancerous tumors that affect the throat, mouth, or voice box often experience pain and soreness in the throat. This discomfort may also be accompanied with symptoms like swallowing difficulty, bloody saliva, phlegm, noisy breathy or a lump in the neck.
What Increases the Risk of Sore Throat?
Sore throats can affect people of all ages. However, there are some factors that increase the risk of infection. These include:
- Hypersensitivity to Airborne Allergens
Airborne allergens such as pet dander, pollen, dust, and molds can irritate the throat. If you’re very sensitive to these allergens, your chances of developing a sore throat are higher when compared to people who do not have such allergies.
- Exposure to Chemical Irritants and Cold Environments
People who are constantly exposed to chemical irritants and cold environments are more susceptible to sore throats. Common sore throat chemical irritants include tobacco smoke, toxic fumes from burning fossil fuels, and some household chemicals.
- Chronic or Recurring Sinus Infection
Sore throats can come and go on a frequent basis if you suffer from chronic sinus infection. Recurring infections can be attributed to nasal drainage where excess mucus in the pharynx irritates the throat and causes swelling. Nasal drainage may also allow a common cold infection to spread to the throat.
Children and teens are more likely to develop sore throats as compared to adults. The reason for this is that the immune system of a child or teenager is still under development. As such, young individuals might have to go through more than one sore throat infection to develop some resistance to this illness.
- Compromised Immune Function
People with a compromised immune function are at a higher risk of developing recurring sore throats. Some of the common factors that decrease immunity include chronic diseases like HIV, leukemia, diabetes, as well as stress, fatigue, poor diet or treatment with steroid and chemotherapy drugs.
- Visiting Congested Places or Living in Close Quarters
Sore throat infections, especially those caused by bacteria, are very contagious. Both viral and bacterial infections can easily spread in public places where many people gather such as bus stations, classrooms, and children nurseries.
Usually, an infection is transferred through airborne droplets after a sick person sneezes or coughs. People may also become infected by touching hands, surfaces, or objects with infected saliva or nasal droplets.
Symptoms of Sore Throat
Sore throats can cause a variety of symptoms, all of which differ depending on the root cause of infection. However, one symptom shared by everyone afflicted with this illness is the feeling of throat pain and discomfort that worsens when swallowing or talking. In some cases, an itchy feeling in the throat may be present as well.
Usually, sore throats result from an existing infection. As a result, infected individuals may experience additional signs and symptoms. Depending on the cause of infection, some of the common sore throat symptoms include:
- Viral Related Symptoms
- Nasal congestion or a running nose
- Bacterial Related Symptoms
- Swollen tonsils and lymph nodes in the neck
- White patches (exudates) on tonsils
- Fever and chills
- Other Symptoms
- Tenderness at the back of the mouth
- Refusal to eat (a symptom of sore throat in infants)
- Loss of appetite
- Husky voice
- Body and ear aches
The distinction between bacterial-related strep throat infections and sore throats caused by viruses is not always present. In such cases, infected individuals may consult a healthcare expert to confirm the diagnosis.