Pharyngitis is the inflammation of the pharynx — the area at the back of the throat. It’s usually known as a sore throat. 

A doctor checking the throat of a female patient

The most common cause of pharyngitis is infection with bacteria or a virus. Pharyngitis causes scratchiness in the throat and difficulty swallowing. A sore throat that lasts for more than a couple of weeks may be due to acid reflux from the stomach, breathing through the mouth in a dry environment, postnasal drip or, rarely, a tumour. 

As certain medications are unsafe to take during pregnancy, throat infection in pregnant women needs to be treated cautiously.

What are its symptoms?

The main pharyngitis symptom is a sore throat and pain when swallowing. In infectious pharyngitis, other symptoms vary depending on whether the infection is viral or bacterial (usually strep throat):

Viral pharyngitis — A sore throat often is accompanied by other symptoms, such as:

  • A red throat
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Dry cough
  • Hoarseness
  • Red eyes
  • Painful sores in and around the mouth, including the lips.

Strep throat — Strep throat and other types of bacterial pharyngitis also cause a sore throat, pain with swallowing and a red throat. These symptoms tend to be more severe with strep throat, compared to viral pharyngitis. Other symptoms that often occur with strep throat include:

  • Fever
  • Body ache 
  • Headache
  • Enlarged tonsils with a white spots
  • Swollen, tender lymph nodes (swollen glands) in the front of the neck
  • Children also can experience nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain

Because symptoms of viral and bacterial pharyngitis can overlap, it may be difficult for the doctor to distinguish between them based on symptoms alone. As a general rule, if you have a prominent cough and nasal symptoms you are more likely to have viral pharyngitis than strep throat.

If you have simple viral pharyngitis, your symptoms should go away gradually over a period of about one week. If you have strep throat, your symptoms should subside within two to three days after you begin taking antibiotics.

How is it diagnosed? 

A typical pharyngitis diagosis will involve a visit to your doctor. After reviewing your symptoms, he/she will ask if you have been exposed to someone with strep throat or any throat, nose or ear infection.

Your doctor will give you a physical examination — paying attention to your mouth, throat, nose, ears and the lymph nodes in your neck — and take your temperature.

If your doctor is sure that you have strep throat, you will be prescribed antibiotics. If there is some uncertainty, your doctor may do a strep test. This is done in your doctor’s office and detects the majority of cases of strep throat. Your doctor may also send a sample of your throat fluids for more intensive testing in a laboratory. 

What are your treatment options? 

As antibiotics don’t work against viruses, viral pharyngitis is treated by addressing the symptoms. These measures include the following home remedies:

  • Get plenty of bed rest 
  • Taking ibuprofen, acetaminophen or aspirin (in adults only) 
  • Drink plenty of water 
  • Gargle with salt water
  • Suck throat lozenges 
  • Use anaesthetic throat sprays

These measures will help to ease your discomfort with a throat infection. If you have strep throat, you will need to take antibiotics to prevent complications.

Can it be prevented? 

You can’t prevent all infections but you can take steps to decrease exposure and spreading:

  • Wash your hands regularly
  • If your child has been diagnosed with strep throat, keep them off school until  they’ve been taking antibiotics for at least 24 hours
  • Quit smoking
  • If one of your family members has pharyngitis, keep their utensils separate 
  • Dispose of any dirty tissues from runny noses and sneezes

IMAGE CREDIT: 123rf.com

The accuracy of this information was checked and approved by physician Dr Thomas Blake in July 2016