Waking up with a sore, scratchy throat is the worst - it makes eating, drinking, even talking painful. If this sounds familiar, you’re probably wondering why your throat is so sore in the first place.
A sore throat can have many causes, from viral infections like colds and flu to chronic conditions like acid reflux. Read on to learn about the most common reasons your throat might be irritated and sore, plus get tips to help soothe the pain and scratchiness.
Viral Infections Are the Most Common Cause
One of the most frequent reasons you wake up with a sore throat is a viral infection like a cold or the flu. Over 200 viruses can cause upper respiratory tract infections that lead to a sore, inflamed throat.
The viruses that cause colds and flu spread easily from person to person through droplets when someone coughs or sneezes. Once the virus enters your body, it multiplies and infects the cells lining your throat and nose. This causes inflammation and irritation, making your throat feel sore and scratchy.
Viral sore throats normally last about a week, though they can hang around for up to 10 days. The sore throat is often the first cold or flu symptom you experience, before stuffy nose, cough, aches, and fever develop.
While there's no cure for viral infections, you can treat the symptoms to help you feel better. We'll cover some effective natural sore throat remedies a bit later.
Bacterial Infections Like Strep Can Also Irritate Your Throat
Another common source of sore throats is a bacterial infection. Strep throat, caused by group A streptococcus bacteria, is the most frequent bacterial throat infection. It affects between 5-15% of sore throat sufferers.
Strep throat is highly contagious and spreads through direct contact with mucus or saliva droplets from an infected person. Symptoms include throat pain, fever, redness or white patches in the throat, and swollen lymph nodes in the neck.
Unlike a viral sore throat, strep throat requires treatment with antibiotics like penicillin or amoxicillin. Without antibiotics, strep can lead to complications like rheumatic fever or inflammation of the kidneys. The antibiotics help you recover faster, often within just 3-5 days.
See your doctor if your sore throat is accompanied by fever, pus on your tonsils, trouble swallowing, or swollen lymph nodes. A quick swab test can confirm if you have strep and need antibiotics.
Allergies Can Also Irritate Your Throat
Did you know allergies are another fairly common reason your throat might feel sore and irritated?
Allergens like pollen, pet dander, mold, and dust mites can trigger an allergic reaction that leads to throat inflammation. This is often accompanied by itchy eyes, sneezing, and a runny nose.
When you breathe in something you're allergic to, your immune system goes on high alert, releasing a flood of chemicals including histamine. This leads to swelling and irritation of mucus membranes, including your throat, causing soreness and pain, especially when swallowing.
Treating allergies is key to relieving a sore throat and other symptoms. Over-the-counter antihistamines like Claritin and Zyrtec can block the histamine response and reduce inflammation and irritation. Nasal corticosteroid sprays can also help if allergies are the culprit.
Pollution and Smoking Are Common Irritants
Everyday irritants like air pollution, smoking, and secondhand smoke are other frequent culprits behind an irritated, sore throat.
Breathing in pollutants, chemicals, and smoke directly inflames and dries out your throat's mucus membranes. This leads to a rough, scratchy, painful feeling every time you swallow.
Irritant-related sore throats often strike during times of high pollution, like rush hour traffic or forest fire season. They also commonly affect smokers and people exposed to secondhand smoke.
The best way to prevent this type of sore throat is to avoid air pollution and cigarette smoke whenever possible. Stay indoors during peak pollution hours, ask smokers to step outside, and avoid heavily trafficked roads on foot or bike.
Dry Indoor Air Can Dehydrate Your Throat
During cold, dry months it's common to wake up with a parched, sore throat. The reason? Heated indoor air can dry out and dehydrate your throat's mucus membranes, especially if you breathe through your mouth at night.
Unlike the humid air of summer, dry winter air allows less moisture to be absorbed by the tissues of your throat. This leads to irritation, inflammation, and discomfort.
You can combat a sore throat from dryness by using a humidifier in your bedroom while you sleep. This puts needed moisture back into the air to keep your throat hydrated and comfortable.
Avoid sleeping with your mouth open by using throat lozenges or nasal strips. Drinking plenty of water also helps keep your throat hydrated.
Acid Reflux Can Cause Chronic Throat Discomfort
Do you have heartburn or a frequently upset stomach? Acid reflux could be the reason your throat is constantly sore and irritated.
When stomach acid backs up into your esophagus and throat, it creates a burning sensation. The acid directly irritates and inflames the lining of your throat, making it feel scratchy and painful.
Acid reflux-related sore throats are often worse in the morning after lying down all night. The discomfort usually feels worse after eating or drinking coffee, tea, and other caffeinated beverages.
To treat a sore throat caused by acid reflux, see your doctor about medications that reduce stomach acid production. Avoiding triggers like caffeine, alcohol, citrus juices, and fried or spicy foods can also help prevent acid from irritating your throat.
Sinus Drainage Can Lead to Throat Irritation
Do you frequently deal with sinus issues like congestion, runny nose, and postnasal drip? That constant drainage running down the back of your throat can definitely make it sore.
When the sinuses get inflamed and mucus doesn’t drain properly, it accumulates in the back of your throat and nose. This leads to irritation, hoarseness, coughing, and soreness.
Treating the underlying sinus problem is key to preventing a sore throat. Your doctor may prescribe nasal steroid sprays, antihistamines, decongestants, or antibiotics if a bacterial sinus infection is present.
Drinking plenty of fluids, using a humidifier, and doing warm salt water rinses can also help thin out mucus and clear sinus drainage from your throat.
7 Soothing Home Remedies for a Sore Throat
While sore throats often have to just run their course, there are some home remedies that can help provide relief from the pain and irritation:
Salt Water Gargle - Gargling with warm salty water 3-4 times per day can help reduce throat swelling and irritation. Dissolve 1/2 teaspoon of salt in a glass of warm water.
Throat Lozenges - Sucking on medicated lozenges provides temporary numbness and moisture to your throat for several hours. Look for ones with anesthetics like benzocaine or menthol.
Warm Liquids - Sipping warm broth, caffeine-free tea with honey, or plain warm water can help soothe throat pain and irritation.
Humidifier - Keeping moisture in the air prevents dryness that can worsen throat pain. Use a humidifier in your bedroom while sleeping.
Chicken Soup - Warm, brothy chicken soup can help relieve throat discomfort. The heat and saltiness can be very soothing.
Marshmallow Root - Traditional marshmallow root tea coats and soothes an irritated throat. Simply steep in hot water for 5 minutes.
Peppermint Tea - Peppermint's anti-inflammatory properties help relieve sore throat pain and irritation. Enjoy 2-3 cups per day.
See Your Doctor if Your Sore Throat Lasts Over a Week
While most sore throats resolve on their own within 3-5 days, it's important to be evaluated by your doctor if throat pain and discomfort hangs on longer than a week.
A sore throat lasting over a week could be a sign of:
- Strep throat or other bacterial infection requiring antibiotics
- Mononucleosis, which causes severe fatigue and swollen lymph nodes
- Tonsillitis, an inflammation of the tonsils at the back of the throat
- Peritonsillar abscess, a pocket of pus near the tonsils
Seeing your doctor ensures proper treatment so more serious complications don’t develop. Let them know how long your sore throat has lasted and describe all of your symptoms.
Your doctor can do a quick swab test to determine if your sore throat is viral or bacterial. Viral sore throats just need symptom relief, while bacterial infections require antibiotics.
When to Seek Emergency Care for a Sore Throat
Most sore throats are minor annoyances that resolve with time and conservative care. But in certain circumstances, an extremely sore throat requires prompt emergency medical care.
Seek emergency care if your sore throat is accompanied by:
Trouble breathing or swallowing - This can signal swelling is constricting your airway.
Muffled, hoarse voice - Indicates potentially serious vocal cord swelling.
High fever above 101°F - Could point to a severe infection.
Severe pain - Extreme throat/neck pain can mean a peritonsillar abscess.
Stiff neck/shoulders - Associated with meningitis, an infection of the brain and spinal cord.
Drooling - Difficulty swallowing saliva is a medical emergency.
Don’t ignore these red flag symptoms associated with a sore throat. Call 911 or have someone drive you to the nearest emergency room for evaluation and treatment if any of these signs are present.
Sore Throats Are Annoying but Usually Clear Up Quickly
Sore throats are annoying but usually clear up quickly on their own or with simple at-home treatments. However, it's important to see your doctor if your sore throat lasts longer than a week or is accompanied by severe pain or high fever.
While sore throats can definitely disrupt your daily routine for several days, you can take comfort knowing it's very rarely the sign of a more serious illness.
Here are some final tips for getting relief from a sore throat:
- Get extra rest to allow your body to fight off the infection.
- Drink warm liquids like broth, tea, and warm water.
- Avoid irritants like cigarette smoke and air pollution.
- Use throat lozenges and cough drops to numb discomfort.
- Try natural remedies like honey, salt water gargles, and marshmallow root.
- Use a humidifier to add moisture to dry indoor air.
- Ask your doctor about antihistamines and other medications that can help.
With some tender loving care and patience, your sore throat should be gone before you know it. And when it strikes next time, you'll have a handy guide to why your throat is sore and the best ways to find relief fast.