If you have been having pain in your throat, you are not alone! Throat pain is one of the most common symptoms and accounts for millions of doctors’ visits each year (1). So how do you figure out if your throat pain is from a throat infection?
Most sore throats are caused by throat infections, so initially it is safe to assume an infection is the culprit. However, there are other several other causes of throat pain, including environmental irritants, injury and tumors.
Of all throat infections, viruses cause about 90 percent (2). Among the viruses that cause sore throats are:
- The common cold, most commonly caused by Rhinovirus.
- The flu, which is caused by the Influenza virus.
- Mononucleosis, caused by the Epstein-Barr virus, and transmitted through saliva, so commonly called the ‘kissing disease’.
- Chickenpox, an infection that causes a fever and an itchy, bumpy rash.
- Measles, an illness that causes a rash and fever, and thanks to vaccines is uncommon in developed countries.
- Mumps, an infection that causes swelling of the glands in the neck and is also uncommon because of vaccines.
A throat infection can also be caused by bacteria. The most common one is Group A Streptococcus (GAS), which causes “strep throat". Nearly 40% of sore throat in children is caused by GAS, whereas a throat infection in an adult may also be from an STD like gonorrhea.
Some throat infections need to be treated with antibiotics, and so it is best to discuss your throat pain with a medical professional. There are tests and analysis the practitioner can do to get a better idea if your pain is from a throat infection.
What if it’s not from a throat infection? Well, then its probably from one of these other causes:
- Cigarette smoke, air pollution and some cleaning products are common environmental irritants that can cause throat pain.
- Allergies: Triggers like pollen and pet dander cause your immune system to react leading to watery eyes, post nasal drip and scratchy throat.
- Injury from straining your vocal cords (i.e. yelling or singing for an extended period) or a piece of food getting stuck in your throat will also cause pain.
- Acid reflux, a condition when acid from your stomach backs up into the tube that carries food from your mouth, can cause throat pain.
- Dry air: When the heat is running in your house, moisture is pulled from the air and makes your throat scratchy.
- Although rare, tumors can form in the throat. When throat pain is from cancer, you will typically have other symptoms and the sore throat will not go away in a few days like it would if caused by a throat infection.
In summary, the most common cause of sore throat is a throat infection from a virus. However, being treated by a medical professional is always the best way to know for sure!
Written By: Angela Fusaro, MD, MBA