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What is pharyngitis?

Pharyngitis — commonly known as sore throat — is an inflammation of the pharynx, resulting in a sore throat. Thus, pharyngitis is a symptom, rather than a condition. It is usually caused by viral and/or bacterial infections, such as the common cold and flu (both viral infections) or by infection with the Streptococcus bacterium (strep throat). Pharyngitis can also occur with mononucleosis (aka “mono”), a viral infection.

Fungal pharyngitis occurs in the setting of immunosuppression or chronic steroid and antibiotic use. Sometimes, allergies, such as hay fever or allergic rhinitis, can cause sore throat. Dry indoor air and chronic mouth breathing, especially in the winter, can lead to recurrent sore throat, particularly in the morning, after waking up. Muscle strain associated with voice use can cause a pain in the throat that is similar to pharyngitis. Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) can lead to chronic sore throat because of stomach acid reflux irritating the throat.

What are symptoms of pharyngitis?

  • Sore throat
  • Dry, scratchy throat
  • Pain when swallowing
  • Pain when speaking

Other symptoms may be present, depending on the cause. These include fatigue, malaise, muscle aches, headache and fever — especially with the flu or other viral infections.

How is pharyngitis diagnosed?

Diagnosis requires a physical exam and laryngoscopy (scope exam in a clinic) to assess for all the possible causes of pharyngitis.

How is pharyngitis treated?

The treatment depends on the cause. Viral pharyngitis goes away on its own with salt water gargles, pain relievers and extra fluids to help alleviate the symptoms. Bacterial pharyngitis is treated with antibiotics; and fungal pharyngitis, with antifungal medications. Prompt antibiotic therapy is needed for strep throat because untreated, it can sometimes cause kidney problems and rheumatic fever, which can damage the heart valves. A full assessment in the clinic will guide treatment for other causes.

When to Call Your Doctor for Pharyngitis

Call your doctor if you notice any of the symptoms listed above. You should be seen by a doctor if your symptoms doesn’t go away in a week; if you notice swollen lymph nodes on your neck; or if you discover pus or white patches on the back of the throat, blood in the spit or phlegm; or a rash.

Johns Hopkins Laryngology

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Johns Hopkins laryngologists deliver state-of-the-art care for voice, swallowing and airway disorders to help you feel your best.