by Mary Vincent, L.Ac.
Sore throats, otherwise known as pharyngitis, are caused by inflammation and swelling at the back of the throat (pharynx). Depending on the cause or severity of the sore throat, the tonsils and larynx may become painful and irritated as well. Other localized symptoms may include:
▪ dryness, scratchiness, itchiness in throat
▪ hoarse voice
▪ increased pain when swallowing
▪ swollen lymph nodes in neck
▪ white spots or patches on tonsils
Sore throats can be caused by a variety of reasons, though viral infections are by far the most common cause of acute cases. These types of infections are typically caused by adenovirus, some types of influenza, common colds, or Epstein-Barr virus (presenting as mononucleosis). Less common causes of viral sore throats include beginning stages of measles or herpes simplex virus.
Of all viral infections, adenovirus is the most likely to be responsible. The throat can become very painful with many swollen lymph nodes, and pronounced tonsillitis. This type of infection is often mistaken for or assumed to be strep throat, and can be impossible to diagnose without a throat culture. Many people tell of how they can call their MD and get a prescription for antibiotics over the phone for strep when they call in with the listed symptoms. I strongly discourage you from doing this without a confirmed diagnosis for strep. It is futile to take antibiotics for any viral infection, and frankly it’s unethical to be prescribed them without merit, as rampant overuse has and continues to give rise to dangerous strains of antibiotic resistant bacteria. There are minimal western antivirals at this time to help with sore throats due to viral infections.
Bacterial infections are caused by group A streptococcus (strep throat), pertussis (whooping cough), or diphtheria. Of these, strep is the most common.
Symptoms of a bacterial throat infection are typically more severe and systemic, including higher fevers, extremely swollen tonsils with white patches, and extreme pain when swallowing. Sore throats such as these warrant a trip to your primary care physician, and antibiotics can significantly speed recovery and minimize complications.
Less common reasons for sore throats include irritation due to allergies (post-nasal drip), inhaling chemical irritants, fungal infections (thrush), and general dry weather. Some individuals with GERD will also find themselves with a sore throat due to acid regurgitation irritating the esophagus and back of throat. Chronic sore throats, sore throats with rash or fever over 101, hoarseness lasting more than 2 weeks, and lumps in the throat all warrant a visit to your medical doctor for further examination.
If you find yourself with a significant sore throat for which there are no antibiotics, we have good news! In addition to several indicated acupuncture points, we have herbal formulas (taken both internally and used topically) that can help lessen the pain and provide some quick relief to painful sore throats. Many of the traditional herbal formulas include herbs with antiviral properties, as well as herbs that help soothe inflammation and ease discomfort. If you feel the beginning of a dry, scratchy, or slightly sore throat associated with possible cold or flu, don’t hesitate to come in, we can usually help shorten the duration of the illness. If you find yourself with a more severe sore throat, go to your primary care physician and get a rapid strep test. If it is negative come in as soon as possible so we can get you on some herbs and back on the road to feeling well again.