Infections of the throat are some of the most common complaints seen by primary care providers and otolaryngologists. Many are caused by common viruses and resolve on their own, however, some can be complicated and very difficulty to treat. Pharyngitis is the medical term for inflammation and infection of the throat, also known as the pharynx. Commonly referred to as a “sore throat”, pharyngitis typically causes pain and occasionally difficulty swallowing and even breathing.
Viruses are the most common causes of pharyngitis and these types of infections are typically self-limiting and uncomplicated. Antibiotics do not treat viral infections but good hydration, rest and pain relievers can help manage symptoms as the infection runs its course. Some viruses, however, can cause serious symptoms and lead to other complications. Measles, chickenpox, croup and whooping cough are well-known viral conditions that can cause complicated cases of pharyngitis and should receive medical attention as soon as possible.
Bacteria can also cause infections of the throat and the most well-known is strep throat, caused by the bacteria Streptococcus pyogenes. Other causes of bacterial pharyngitis can occur including those caused by Staphylococcus aureus, gonorrhea and chlamydia. Many of these infections respond well to antibiotics, however, because of the widespread overuse of antibiotics for viral infections, resistance is on the rise, so be sure you receive a thorough examination by a trained and experienced medical professional before taking antibiotics for a sore throat.
During the examination for a sore throat, your medical provider will have you open your mouth wide so the posterior pharynx (the back of your throat) can be well visualized with the aid of a light. Redness, grey or white patches and swelling can tell the medical provider if and what type of infection may be present. The ears, nose and lymph nodes will also be examined as they can be affected in many of these types of infections. A throat culture may be necessary to identify the specific bacteria or confirm the presence of strep. Occasionally, if the diagnosis is not clear or there are other concerns, such as difficulty with swallowing or breathing, a laryngoscope may be used to examine the throat structures farther down beyond what can be seen with the just opening the mouth. Proper hygiene and over good health habits can prevent many cases of pharyngitis.