Pharyngitis is the medical term for inflammation of the pharynx, which is the back of your throat. Commonly it is also known as a sore throat. Most of the causes of pharyngitis are infectious. The offending agent triggers your immune response, resulting in redness, irritation, and swelling of the pharynx. It is a fairly common condition and can be treated effectively with medications and symptomatic care. In certain severe cases, surgical options might be suggested to reduce the complications associated with pharyngitis.
Viral infections cause over 80% of cases of pharyngitis. Adenovirus, which causes the common cold, is one of the most well-known causes of pharyngitis. The pharynx becomes swollen and painful, and lymph node swelling may also be present in some cases. Influenza virus is another important cause of pharyngitis. Epstein Barr virus, which causes infectious mononucleosis, also leads to swelling and redness of the pharynx. Other viral causes include paramyxovirus, herpes simplex virus, parainfluenza virus, rhinovirus, coronavirus, etc.
A few cases of pharyngitis are caused by bacterial infection. The most frequent cause of bacterial infection of the pharynx is group-A streptococcus bacteria, leading to strep throat. Other bacterial causes include Streptococcus pneumonia, Bacillus anthracis, Haemophilus, influenza, etc.
Other uncommon causes of pharyngitis that are non-infectious include gastric acid reflux disease, oral thrush, chemical irritation, Bechet’s syndrome, Steven Johnson’s syndrome, thyroiditis, Ludwig’s angina, etc. Certain medications also have the potency to cause inflammation of the pharynx.
The most common risk factor of pharyngitis is contact with an infected person. Since viral infections cause the majority of the cases, they can quickly spread from one person to another through droplets coughed or sneezed in the air. Therefore any crowded space with even a single infected person is at risk. Doctors, nurses, and hospital staff are particularly at risk of catching these viral or bacterial infections. These infections are also more prevalent during cold weather than any other season. Frequent sinusitis, allergic rhinitis, gastric acid reflux disease, etc., are other risk factors. Patients with weakened immune systems can also develop pharyngitis and other related symptoms.
Pharyngitis is much more common in children since they have comparatively weaker immune systems than adults. Males and females are equally affected by this condition, whether viral, bacterial, or other causes.
The signs and symptoms of pharyngitis depend on its causative agents. Viral infections generally cause pain, redness, irritation, and swelling of the pharynx with or without lymph node enlargement. Therefore coughing, runny nose, and sneezing are common. Various cases, particularly those affected by the influenza virus, also present fever, headache, and general tiredness. Swelling of the pharynx can also lead to hoarseness of voice and difficulty swallowing. Bacterial infections usually don’t involve cough, but they cause a sore throat with severe pain and discomfort. The Pharynx region is seen to be covered in white or gray patches. You may experience difficulty swallowing food or even water, fever, chills, headache, nausea or vomiting, and malaise.
Accurate diagnosis of pharyngitis requires a history of onset, symptoms, and a thorough clinical examination of the pharynx. Torchlight is focused on the back of the throat to look for any redness, swelling, or white and gray patches. Your doctor might also palpate your neck region to look for the presence of swollen or enlarged lymph nodes. A throat culture is necessary to confirm the diagnosis if a bacterial infection is suspected. In case a patient presents with symptoms of infectious mononucleosis, the doctor might request a complete blood count (CBC) and a blood sample to confirm the presence of this infection.
Other conditions that might present with similar symptoms as pharyngitis include epiglottitis, tonsillitis, retropharyngeal abscess, croup, bacterial tracheitis, ebola, typhoid, malaria, and a few other diseases.
Most of the cases of pharyngitis associated with viral infections do not require any medication or treatment except for symptomatic care. If you have a fever and sore throat, your doctor might prescribe an antipyretic and analgesic reduce the symptoms. Home remedies are usually preferred, including intake of fluids, drinking warm soups or broths, gargling with warm saline water, using a nebulizer or humidifier, and bed rest. These remedies can help in reducing the symptoms and speed up the recovery process. Streptococcal infection requires the intake of antibiotics as prescribed by your doctor and symptomatic care
Cases of pharyngitis associated with viral infections recover well on their own within 10 to 14 days with only symptomatic care. Bacteria-associated pharyngitis also recovers well if diagnosed correctly on time and prescribed antibiotic dosage is completed.
Basic prevention methods to reduce the chances of developing pharyngitis include avoiding close contact with infected individuals, wearing a face mask in crowded areas, washing hands frequently, and using alcohol-based sanitizers. Most of these infections are spread from air droplets or oral secretions from an infected person; therefore, sharing toothbrushes or utensils should be avoided until their recovery. Very few viruses that are associated with pharyngitis have vaccinations available. If they are available in your country, it is beneficial to get vaccinated. Active or passive smoking should be avoided as well to reduce its risk.
Our clinical experts continually monitor the health and medical content posted on CURA4U, and we update our blogs and articles when new information becomes available. Last reviewed by Dr.Saad Zia on May 26, 2023.
Pharyngitis | Johns Hopkins Medicine
Pharyngitis | The College of Family Physicians of Canada (cfp.ca)