A throat infection, sometimes called pharyngitis, can be either a bacterial or a viral infection leading to inflammation of the tissues of the throat that causes redness, pain and swelling of the walls or structures of the throat.
Your throat, or pharynx, is the tube-like structure that carries both food to the esophagus and air to your windpipe (called the larynx). Infective agents of the throat most often enter through the mouth or nose. Many of these infections are viral; others can be caused by bacteria (such as Streptococcus pyogenes, or group A Streptococcus). Streptococcal bacteria are the agents that cause the painful and well-known condition known as strep throat.
Symptoms of throat infection most commonly include pain and a sensation of heat in the throat or pharynx. The infection may also affect other structures within the throat, in particular the tonsils (when it is referred to as tonsillitis). Symptoms can range from mild to severe and may or may not be accompanied by fever, cough, congestion, and other flu-like symptoms such as body aches. You may also experience swollen lymph nodes in the neck.
Most throat infections, particularly those due to viruses, clear up on their own, while certain bacterial infections are easily treated with antibiotics.
Less commonly, will the symptoms of a throat infection lead to serious and emergency type symptoms, such as choking or severe difficulty breathing, which may be combined with pale or blue lips, rapid heart rate (tachycardia), and anxiety; high fever (higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit); sudden swelling of the tongue or throat structures; change in level of consciousness or alertness, such as passing out or unresponsiveness; or a change in mental status or sudden behavior change, such as confusion, delirium, lethargy, hallucinations or delusions.
You may also have less serious symptoms or conditions that should still be evaluated. Seek prompt medical care if you have white patches at the back of your throat or on your tonsils, if you are being treated for throat infection but mild symptoms recur or are persistent, or if you have other concerns.
What are the symptoms of throat infection?
You may experience throat infection symptoms for several weeks at a time. It is important to remember that if these symptoms subside during treatment of a bacterial throat infection, it does not mean that the infection is gone: you should continue to take your medication as directed. If any of these symptoms become severe, if it becomes difficult to breathe, or if your fever exceeds 101 degrees Fahrenheit, seek medical attention.
What causes throat infections?
Throat infections are typically caused by a virus or by bacterial infection (e.g., strep throat). Examples of viral causes of sore throat include the flu (influenza) and infectious mononucleosis. Bacterial and viral throat infections are usually contagious.
Ways you can lower your risk for developing a throat infection include:
- Avoiding sharing food and eating utensils, cups, and glasses
- Using sanitizing agents on phones, keyboards, remotes, and other shared surfaces
- Ventilating work and living spaces as much as possible
- Washing your hands often
How is throat infection treated?
The most important step in treating throat infection is to practice prevention. However, even with the most conscientious efforts, infections can still occur. Fortunately, many throat infections resolve by themselves over time or are usually curable with timely treatment with Antibiotics such as amoxicillin or penicillin and, if needed, fever-reducing agents. It is important, however, to seek medical help to rule out certain systemic disease in which throat infection may be the presenting complaint. Infectious mononucleosis, for example, is a viral illness caused by the Epstein Barr virus which can disrupt normal liver function and cause enlargement of the spleen and intraabdominal bleeding from spleen rupture. Complications from throat infection may include the formation of a pus pocket within the tissues of thye throat better known as an abscess. Abscesses, such as a peritonsillar abscess, usually need to be drained in order to get better and pose a serious health risk if not treated in a timely fashion.