Why does my throat hurt to swallow?

throat hurt to swallow
Medically reviewed by Dr. Ola Tarabzuni

Key Takeaways

  1. Painful swallowing, medically known as odynophagia, can result from various factors, including infections, inflammation, or obstructions. The specific symptoms experienced, such as pain in the jaw, throat, chest, or esophagus, can help pinpoint the cause. 
  2. Several conditions and illnesses can lead to painful swallowing, including strep throat, tonsillitis, epiglottitis, yeast infections, esophagitis, throat injuries, sinus infections, ear infections, and oral thrush. 
  3. To receive adequate treatment for painful swallowing, it’s crucial to obtain a correct diagnosis of the underlying cause. Doctors may recommend diagnostic tests like throat cultures, barium swallows, blood tests, and CT scans. 
  4. Treatment options may include medications, such as antibiotics for bacterial infections and antifungals for yeast infections, as well as home remedies like NSAIDs, antacids, throat sprays, salt water gargling, and staying hydrated. 

Overview

Painful swallowing, or odynophagia, can be triggered by various factors such as infections, inflammation, or obstructions. By observing specific symptoms, we can often pinpoint the cause. These symptoms may include pain in the jaw, throat, chest, or esophagus, with the discomfort potentially affecting one side of the throat and changing during deep breaths. In this article, we’ll explore the root causes and associated symptoms of painful swallowing and provide practical advice on easing the discomfort. Swallowing is a routine action we usually don’t think about, but when it becomes painful, it can be quite bothersome and be a reason for loss of appetite. We often resort to throat lozenges or herbal teas when a scratchy throat strikes. It’s worth noting that not all sore throats lead to painful swallowing, and not all swallowing issues are due to bacterial infections.

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What is painful swallowing a symptom of?

Painful swallowing, known as odynophagia, can be attributed to various illnesses and conditions that affect the throat, mouth, or food pipe. In each case, the discomfort is linked to infection, inflammation, or obstruction. Let’s explore the common causes of this discomfort:

1. Strep Throat

Strep throat, along with epiglottitis and esophagitis, is a frequent cause of pain during swallowing. Strep throat is an infection caused by Streptococcal bacteria. Symptoms may include swollen lymph nodes, soft palate pain, red spots on the soft palate, fever, and white tonsil patches.

2. Tonsillitis

Tonsillitis, characterized by inflammation and infection of the tonsils and throat lymph nodes, often leads to painful swallowing. Viruses or bacterial infections can cause it and present with symptoms such as swollen tonsils, fever, bad breath, white spots on the tonsils, and a sore neck or jaw.

3. Epiglottitis

Any condition that irritates the esophagus may result in painful swallowing. The esophagus carries food from the mouth to the stomach and can become inflamed due to allergic reactions, acid reflux, infections, or medications. Additional symptoms may include heartburn, nausea, chest pain, stomach aches, and a hoarse voice. Epiglottitis is a throat infection causing inflammation of the epiglottis, a flap that prevents food from entering the windpipe. Typical symptoms include difficulty swallowing (dysphagia), high fever, drooling, and a preference for leaning forward.

4. Yeast Infections

Yeast infections in the mouth, throat, or food pipe can lead to discomfort while swallowing. Candida, a common fungus, is often responsible. Associated symptoms may involve loss of taste, white patches on the tongue, and redness at the corners of the mouth.

5. Esophagitis

Esophagitis, characterized by inflammation of the esophagus (food pipe), is commonly linked to gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), where stomach acid flows back into the esophagus.

Certain medications and allergic reactions can also trigger it. Symptoms alongside painful swallowing may include chest pain, stomach discomfort, hoarseness, coughing, heartburn, and nausea.

6. Throat Injury

Though less common, throat injuries resulting from consuming excessively hot food or ingesting sharp-edged items (like chips) can lead to pain during swallowing.

The location and extent of the injury determine whether the pain is on one side of the throat or further down in the food pipe.

7. Sinus Infection

A sore throat and painful swallowing may also stem from colds, flu, or sinus infections. Swallowing difficulties may arise from frequent throat clearing, leading to irritation until the infection subsides.

8. Ear Infection

Ear infections can manifest in various forms, with ear pain and painful swallowing often occurring in middle ear infections. The canals in the middle ear connect to the upper throat and nasal cavity, making pressure release challenging if there’s a blockage.

9. Oral Thrush

Oral thrush, a yeast infection, can affect the mouth, throat, and esophagus, causing discomfort when swallowing. Bacteria and candida are usually responsible. Symptoms may include a loss of taste, white patches on the tongue, and red, dry, or cracked corners of the lips.

Understanding the underlying causes of painful swallowing is essential for effective management and seeking timely medical guidance when needed. If you experience persistent discomfort while swallowing, it is advisable to consult with an online doctor for a proper evaluation and appropriate treatment. 

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What is the diagnosis of throat pain?

For getting effective treatment for painful swallowing, the right diagnosis of the underlying cause is essential. Your doctor may suggest several diagnostic tests to ascertain the root cause. After reviewing an individual’s medical history and conducting a physical examination, the following diagnostic tests may be employed:

1. Throat Culture

In a throat culture, the doctor gently collects a sample of mucus from the throat using a cotton swab. This mucus sample is then examined to determine the presence of any infectious organisms that might be responsible for an infection.

2. Barium Swallow

A barium swallow involves a distinctive X-ray examination of the food pipe. Before the X-ray procedure, the individual is asked to ingest a barium liquid. This substance visualizes the path food takes from the mouth to the stomach, providing crucial insights into potential obstructions or issues.

3. Blood Tests

Blood tests, including a white blood cell count, serve as valuable tools for the doctor to assess the presence of an infection within the body.

4. CT Scan

Doctors utilize CT scans to generate detailed images of the throat, enabling the identification of abnormalities, such as tumors within the throat or food pipe, which may be contributing to painful swallowing.

These diagnostic tests are vital in guiding healthcare professionals toward an accurate diagnosis, ensuring that the most appropriate and effective treatment plan can be implemented.

How do you heal when it hurts to swallow?

When healing the discomfort associated with painful swallowing, the appropriate treatment primarily depends on the underlying cause. Treatment personalized for your condition can make a significant difference in enhancing your well-being. Here are the potential treatment options:

1. Medications

Medication stands as the first line of action for specific types of infections. Antifungal medications are often prescribed for yeast infections, while antibiotics are commonly used to combat bacterial infections, including strep throat. In cases of recurrent or unresponsive tonsillitis, your doctor may recommend a tonsillectomy procedure to remove the tonsils, addressing the root of the issue. Doctors often prescribe antibiotics and throat-numbing mouthwash to alleviate discomfort. The numbing agent provides immediate relief, complementing the effectiveness of antibiotic medications. In the case of severe sore throats, anti-inflammatory drugs may be recommended.

2. Home Remedies

Other than prescription antibiotics and antifungal medications, there are various over-the-counter medicines and home remedies that can aid in the relief of a sore throat and painful swallowing, particularly when the condition is not severe. Some of the home remedies that can offer short-term relief include:

  • Taking nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen, naproxen, and acetaminophen to reduce inflammation and swelling in the mouth, throat, and food pipe, facilitating easier and less painful swallowing.
  • Using over-the-counter antacids to address pain arising from acid reflux effectively.
  • Use throat sprays, readily available over-the-counter or online, to numb the throat, making swallowing more manageable and less painful.
  • Gargling with a saltwater solution can reduce inflammation and minimize the discomfort associated with swallowing. A simple mixture of warm water (8 oz) and salt (1 tsp) can be gargled several times daily.
  • Enjoy a hot shower, as the steam can aid in reducing inflammation, contributing to painful swallowing.
  • Sipping on warm herbal teas, preferably with honey, can alleviate throat swelling and pain. Although scientific evidence may be limited, teas like green tea, turmeric tea, licorice root tea, and slippery elm tea are popular for their soothing properties.
  • It’s advisable to refrain from the consumption of alcohol and tobacco, as these substances can irritate the soft tissues in the mouth, throat, and food pipe.
  • Utilizing a humidifier can offer multiple advantages, including reducing the risk of nasal congestion and sore throats. This device converts water into air moisture, increasing room humidity. Breathing in moist air helps alleviate throat inflammation and discomfort. 

These treatment options, whether through medication or home remedies, are vital in addressing painful swallowing and speeding the recovery process.

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Should I go to the doctor if it hurts to swallow?

Dealing with painful swallowing can often resolve quickly, particularly when associated with common colds or seasonal allergies. Nonetheless, there are instances when seeking professional medical assistance becomes crucial to identify the cause and initiate appropriate treatment.

It is advisable to consult a doctor in the following scenarios:

  • When the cause of painful swallowing remains unknown, and the discomfort persists for more than a week or shows signs of worsening.
  • Upon noticing white spots in the back of the throat, which can indicate an underlying issue.
  • Recognizing the potential for painful swallowing to be indicative of a medical emergency is equally essential, especially if it is accompanied by swelling of the throat, difficulty breathing, challenges in opening the mouth, or unusual drooling.

Typically, painful swallowing linked to common ailments, like colds or allergies, tends to subside within a week. However, if your sore throat and discomfort persist, it is highly advisable to seek professional evaluation to pinpoint the cause and receive tailored treatment.

FAQs about throat hurt to swallow

What is the difference between dysphagia and odynophagia?

The difference between dysphagia and odynophagia is that dysphagia occurs as a result of difficulty in swallowing due to underlying health conditions. However, odynophagia causes painful swallowing due to either throat infection or inflammation.

Why does my throat hurt but not sick?

If you feel pain in the throat or your throat feels scratchy, it can be due to dry air or nasal congestion. It’s not necessarily always illness or infection. Other causes like irritants or allergens can also contribute to painful swallowing like tobacco, inhaling harsh chemicals, or air pollution.

How long will Globus last?

Globus is the feeling of having a lump in the throat, which makes swallowing difficult and painful. Depending upon the underlying cause, it can last from weeks to months or even years. Globus can occur due to the reflexation of the top sphincter while swallowing.

What triggers the Globus sensation?

Globus sensation triggers are often psychogenic, and anxiety, mood distress, somatic concerns, neuroticism, and higher alexithymia can trigger the sensation of painful swallowing.

What foods to avoid with Globus sensation?

If you have Globus, avoid triggers like spicy or greasy foods, fatty foods, lying down right after meals, and eating foods late at night or before bedtime.

Your Doctors Online uses high-quality and trustworthy sources to ensure content accuracy and reliability. We rely on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions and medical associations to provide up-to-date and evidence-based information to the users.

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  • Schachtel, Bernard P., et al. “Subjective and objective features of sore throat.” Archives of internal medicine 144.3 (1984): 497-500.
  • Wiggins, Shirley A., and Roxie L. Foster. “Pain after tonsillectomy and adenoidectomy:“ouch it did hurt bad”.” Pain Management Nursing 8.4 (2007): 156-165.
  • Le, Jonathan, Roderick C. Deano, and Amish N. Raval. “It hurts to swallow! Pseudoachalasia resulting from attempted transcatheter occlusion of a giant congenital coronary artery fistula.” Catheterization and Cardiovascular Interventions 94.7 (2019): 980-983.
  • Liudmila, Evdokimova. “The sensus historicus of an allegorical text at the end of the middle ages: the ballad of eustache deschamps devoted to a swallow that hurts with its deceitful tongue.” St. Tikhon’s University Review. Series III. Philology-№ 3 (33) 13 (2013): 52-65.

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