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What is Pharyngitis?
Often referred to as a sore throat, acute pharyngitis is a painful inflammation of the pharynx (the area that joins the nasal cavity and the oral cavity to the larynx) in the throat region. 'Acute' pharyngitis simply means that the condition has not persisted more than a few weeks (which would then be classified as 'chronic'). Pharyngitis occurs most commonly with a viral upper respiratory infection.
Pharyngitis symptoms may include difficulty swallowing, accompanied by a ‘scratchy’ and dry throat. Inside, the throat often appears swollen, red, and inflamed with or without white spots (filled with pus). It is not uncommon for a fever or cough to accompany pharyngitis.
Your doctor will be able to diagnose acute pharyngitis by looking inside the mouth, towards the back of the throat. There are two types of pharyngitis that can look quite similar; viral pharyngitis and bacterial pharyngitis.
Tests for Pharyngitis
A throat culture is often taken to determine if bacteria are present. The throat is swabbed and the sample is sent to a laboratory for culture and analysis. The results are often obtained from the lab more than 24 hours later.
A rapid strep test, which is a screening test for Group A Streptococcus, the most common bacterial cause of pharyngitis, may be performed and analyzed in the physician's office with results available in 15 minutes.
However, this test is not as reliable, and negative results must be confirmed by culture. Most cases are usually diagnosed purely on history and physical examination which may reveal swollen tonsils (near the base of the tongue), sometimes covered with small white or gray pustules.
The lymph nodes in the neck often become swollen and tender with infection of the tonsils or tonsillitis occurring simultaneously.
What Causes Pharyngitis?
Organisms such as Streptococcus, Mycoplasma pneumoniae, Chlamydia pneumoniae, and Neisseria gonorrhoeae can cause bacterial pharyngitis. Infection is spread by person-to-person contact.
Other Causes of Pharyngitis
- Inhaling environmental and chemical pollutants
- Other illnesses (e.g., diphtheria, mononeucleosis)
- Seasonal allergies
- Smoking and second-hand smoke
- Lowered Immune System
Help for Pharyngitis
Without treatment, pharyngitis will usually settle itself within a few days. For that reason, the main focus of conventional pharyngitis treatments is to treat the pharyngitis symptoms. Pharyngitis treatments will vary according to the cause (whether it is bacterial or viral).
Various Pharyngitis Treatments
Conventional Medical Treatment
Antibiotics are only helpful when a bacterial infection is the cause of pharyngitis. For viral pharyngitis, antibiotics have been shown to only affect the degree of sore throat pain temporarily. Analgesics (pain killers) are also effective, but there are many simple measures that can also be used. Viral pharyngitis usually resolves itself without medication. Throat lozenges or cough medicine are often used for short-term pain relief.
Gargling with warm salt-water may help to relieve pain and reduce swelling. If the tonsils have been chronically infected, they may need to be removed surgically (tonsillectomy), although this should only be a last resort, as the tonsils are a powerful line of defense in the immune response to infectious organisms.
There are a number of things that can be done at home to treat the symptoms of pharyngitis. It’s a good idea to avoid foods that are very acidic, as this can be extremely painful on the inner throat area. Gargling gently with warm salty water can also serve as a natural antiseptic. Honey in a warm herbal tea can also provide relief, and cold beverages or popsicles will help to numb the throat, thus relieving the ‘scratchiness’.
Yogurt, ice cream, or milk have also been shown to help alleviate the pain temporarily by coating the affected area, while raw juice of lemon or lime may help destroy bacteria in bacteria-related throat infections. Just beware that the high acid content may irritate the affected throat tissues.