Sore throat, also called pharyngitis, is a painful inflammation of the mucous membranes lining the pharynx. It is a symptom of many conditions, but most often is associated with colds or influenza. Sore throat may be caused by either viral or bacterial infections or environmental conditions. Most sore throats heal without complications, but they should not be ignored because some develop into serious illnesses.
Almost everyone gets a sore throat at one time or another, although children in child care or grade school have them more often than adolescents and adults. Sore throats are most common during the winter months when upper respiratory infections (colds) are more frequent.
Sore throats can be either acute or chronic. Acute sore throats are the more common. They appear suddenly and last from three to about seven days. A chronic sore throat lasts much longer and is a symptom of an unresolved underlying condition or disease, such as a sinus infection.
Causes and symptoms
Sore throats have many different causes, and may or may not be accompanied by cold symptoms, fever,or swollen lymph glands. Proper treatment depends on understanding the cause of the sore throat.
Viral sore throat
Viruses cause 90–95% of all sore throats. Cold and flu viruses are the main culprits. These viruses cause an inflammation in the throat and occasionally the tonsils (tonsillitis). Cold symptoms almost always accompany a viral sore throat. These can include a runny nose, cough, congestion, hoarseness, conjunctivitis, and fever. The level of throat pain varies from uncomfortable to excruciating, when it is painful for the patient to eat, breathe, swallow, or speak.
Another group of viruses that cause sore throat are the adenoviruses. These may also cause infections of the lungs and ears. In addition to a sore throat, symptoms that accompany an adenovirus infection include cough, runny nose, white bumps on the tonsils and throat, mild diarrhea, vomiting, and a rash. The sore throat lasts about one week.
A third type of virus that can cause severe sore throat is the coxsackie virus. It can cause a disease called herpangina. Although anyone can get herpangina, it is most common in children up to age ten and is more prevalent in the summer or early autumn. Herpangina is sometimes called summer sore throat.
Three to six days after being exposed to the virus, an infected person develops a sudden sore throat that is accompanied by a substantial fever usually between 102–104°F (38.9–40°C). Tiny grayish-white blisters form on the throat and in the mouth. These fester and become small ulcers. Throat pain is often severe, interfering with swallowing. Children may become dehydrated if they are reluctant to eat or drink because of the pain. In addition, people with herpangina may vomit, have abdominal pain, and generally feel ill and miserable.
One other common cause of a viral sore throat is mononucleosis. Mononucleosis occurs when the Epstein-Barr virus infects one specific type of lymphocyte. The infection spreads to the lymphatic system, respiratory system, liver, spleen, and throat. Symptoms appear 30–50 days after exposure.
Mononucleosis, sometimes called the kissing disease, is extremely common. It is estimated that by the age of 35–40, 80–95% of Americans will have had mononucleosis. Often, symptoms are mild, especially in young children, and are diagnosed as a cold. Since symptoms are more severe in adolescents and adults, more cases are diagnosed as monomucleosis in this age group. One of the main symptoms of mononucleosis is a severe sore throat.
Although a runny nose and cough are much more likely to accompany a sore throat caused by a virus than one caused by a bacteria, there is no absolute way to tell what is causing the sore throat without a laboratory test. Viral sore throats are contagious and are passed directly from person to person by coughing and sneezing.
Tish Davidson, The Gale Group Inc., Gale, Detroit,