Pharyngitis is the medical term used to describe an infection or inflammation of your throat. Your throat starts at the back of your mouth and nose and connects to your oesophagus (the pipe that goes from your mouth to your stomach), windpipe (trachea) and voice box (larynx).
Pharyngitis can be an acute or chronic inflammation of your throat. When describing an illness, the terms ‘acute’ and ‘chronic’ refer to how long a person has had it, not to how serious the condition is.
Symptoms of pharyngitis
- Acute pharyngitis is typically over within three to seven days. It’s a common condition, particularly in children aged five to 15 years old during winter and early spring.
- Chronic pharyngitis (or a persistent sore throat) lasts for longer, sometimes for several weeks.
The symptoms of pharyngitis vary depending on how inflamed your throat is. The most common symptom is a sore throat, which may be mild or severe. Other symptoms that you may also have at the same time include:
Complications of pharyngitis
- Difficulty and pain when swallowing
- A fever (a temperature higher than 37.5°c)
- A runny or blocked nose
- A cough
- A headache
- Enlarged and tender glands in your neck
- Pain or discomfort in your abdomen (tummy)
- Feeling sick or vomiting
- Enlarged and painful tonsils (tonsillitis)
Most people with pharyngitis won’t have any complications. However, on rare occasions, pharyngitis caused by a bacterial infection can lead to:
- A sinus infection (sinusitis)
- A throat abscess (retropharyngeal abscess) - this is most common in young children
- An abscess behind your tonsils (peritonsillar abscess or quinsy)
If you have an abscess, you may have severe pain, drool and find it very hard to swallow - see your ENT doctor if you have these symptoms. An abscess can also affect your breathing. It’s important that you seek immediate medical attention
if you’re finding it hard to breathe.
Causes of pharyngitis
Pharyngitis is usually caused by an infection with a virus and, less commonly, by bacteria. Most people with acute pharyngitis have a viral infection
such as the common cold virus. The most common type of bacterial infection is group A Streptococcus (known as strep throat). Strep throat occurs most often in children. There is no evidence that sore throats caused by a bacterial infection are more severe than those caused by a virus, or that they last any longer. Other, rarer causes of an acute sore throat may include:
Diagnosis of pharyngitis
Your ENT doctor will usually be able to diagnose pharyngitis by asking about your symptoms and possibly also examining you. He or she may look inside your throat to check for signs of infection and feel your neck to check for any swelling. You won't usually need any other tests but if your ENT doctor
suspects you have a bacterial infection and you’re at risk of complications, he or she may take a swab sample from the back of your throat to help confirm this. However, this isn't usually necessary.
Treatment of pharyngitis
For most people, a sore throat
will get better on its own within a week of the symptoms starting without any specific treatment. However, there are things you can do to help ease your symptoms and make you feel more comfortable.
- Self-help: Although there is little scientific evidence to support it, you may find gargling a few times a day for three to four minutes with salt water or soluble aspirin dissolved in water helps your sore throat. Never give aspirin to children under the age of 16. Drinking warm liquids (particularly with lemon and honey) and sucking on throat lozenges may also help to soothe your throat.
- Over-the-counter painkillers: You can take over-the-counter painkillers such as ibuprofen or paracetamol to relieve pain and reduce your temperature. Don’t give aspirin to children under 16. Always read the patient information leaflet that comes with your medicine and if you have any questions, ask your pharmacist for advice. If your symptoms don’t improve or get worse, contact your ENT doctor.
- Antibiotics: Your ENT specialist is unlikely to prescribe antibiotics, even if your sore throat is thought to be caused by a bacterial infection, as they won't usually relieve your symptoms or help you to recover any sooner. You may be prescribed antibiotics if you have a severe infection or if your ENT specialist thinks you're at risk of complications. You may also be given antibiotics if you're admitted to hospital because of a complication, such as an abscess.