You know the sensation. First, it’s an uncomfortable little “awareness” in the back of your throat, and the thought crosses your mind, “I hope I’m not coming down with something.” Slowly, over the next few hours or so, your awareness increases. Then the next morning, you awaken with the sensation of having swallowed a blowtorch. And, since a sore throat is all too often the first act of a bad cold, you know what the next few days are going to be like, and wonder what you can do to prevent things from getting worse. Here are some suggestions from WholeHealth Chicago.
What is Sore Throat?
The medical name for a sore throat is acute pharyngitis–so called because the inflammation occurs in the pharynx, the tissue at the back of the throat that you can see when you open your mouth wide. A sore throat is not an illness, but a symptom of one–most commonly a bacterial or viral infection. Since the throat, along with the nose, is the body’s first line of defense against invading airborne organisms, the tissue lining this passage is one of the initial sites to be affected by an on-coming cold, flu, or sinus infection. When your throat is infected, your body responds by sending more white blood cells to the area to help battle the infection and promote healing. In addition, the lymph nodes in your neck swell up, going into high gear to produce antibodies aimed at killing the invaders. All this turmoil accounts for the redness, swelling, pain, and enlargement of the “glands” (actually lymph nodes) that characterize a sore throat.
Most common during the winter, sore throats are one of the primary reasons for absence from work and school. Those caused by streptococcus bacteria (strep throat) require antibiotics to prevent complications. On the other hand, antibiotics are useless against viral sore throats; it’s your body’s own immune system that needs to rescue you here.
In children, sore throat may also mean acute tonsillitis, an infection of the paired masses of tissue (the tonsils) on either side of the throat. Tonsils generally disappear by adulthood. In very rare cases, a sore throat can become so swollen from infection that it constricts breathing. This is a life-threatening condition that calls for immediate medical attention.
- An itchy, scratchy, ticklish sensation in the back of the throat
- Pain or burning in the throat and sometimes in the ears
- Visible redness and swelling
- Discomfort when swallowing or talking
- A lumplike feeling in the throat
- Tender, swollen lymph nodes under the jaw.
What Causes Sore Throat?
Any of a number of underlying problems can produce a sore throat. The majority of sore throats in adults are caused by viral infections, such as colds or flu. Viruses can attack throat tissue directly; they can also produce postnasal drip, an additional source of throat irritation. Postnasal drip can also be triggered by sinusitis and allergies.
A sore throat from a viral infection tends to develop gradually and to be relatively mild, usually clearing up in a day or two. On the other hand, bacterial infections such as strep throat often produce severe pain in a matter of hours and will need to be treated with prescription drugs.
A sore throat lasting for several days, accompanied by a low-grade fever and flulike symptoms, may actually be a symptom of infectious mononucleosis. Although there is no medical treatment for the virus causing “mono,” a persistent sore throat does require medical attention.
Other minor causes of throat discomfort include:
- Dry heat
- Smoke from cigarettes, cigars, or pipes
- Polluted air
- Cough or voice strain, such as shouting
- Dental procedures
- Spicy foods, which sometimes trigger throat pain
Treatment and Prevention
Most sore throats clear up on their own within three to 10 days. The majority of sore throats in adults are caused by viruses that the body fights off on its own. This means that a visit to the doctor is not usually necessary.
Conventional treatments If you believe your sore throat may be the result of a bacterial infection, a visit to your health-care provider or an urgent-care clinic is important. The doctor will perform a throat culture, a painless wiping of the tissue with a cotton swab. The results can sometimes be analyzed in the office, giving you a diagnosis in minutes; the sample is usually then also sent out to a lab for formal confirmation. If your sore throat is caused by a bacterial infection, you will need to take prescription antibiotics.
If streptococcus bacteria is found, the diagnosis will be strep throat, and either oral or injected antibiotics–usually penicillin or erythromycin–are typically prescribed. Untreated, or inadequately treated, strep throat can lead to rheumatic fever (which can damage the heart), or to a kidney disease called acute glomerulonephritis. This makes it especially important that all the antibiotics are taken exactly as prescribed–often for 10 days or more.
For strep throat: There are some signals that indicate when a painful throat might be strep, and thereby need medical attention.
Strep frequently invades tonsils, and since these masses of lymphatic tissue generally disappear by adulthood, most strep throat sufferers are young.
Patients with a strep throat are often “sicker.” The throat is very painful and red, with occasional patches of puslike discharge. There may be vomiting, and extreme fatigue and fever are almost always present. However, such upper respiratory discomforts as a runny nose and watery eyes are not typically present.
Strep throat is very contagious–it “travels.” If you hear that children in your child’s playgroup or school are staying home with strep throat, then your child starts complaining, it’s likely that strep has now entered your household.
Cautionary note: A visit to an emergency room (which is different from an urgent-care clinic) is not a good idea for a sore throat (even strep) unless there’s a problem with swallowing or breathing. Insurance companies don’t like to pay for emergency room visits for sore throats, and you may get stuck with an astronomically high bill. Complementary options
Often sore throats caused by a flu or cold virus or by allergies or environmental irritants are best handled with natural remedies and self-care techniques. These help boost the body’s immune system to throw off the infection, and they also provide relief from the discomfort of the sore throat. And they are very safe to use until symptoms subside.
Just a reminder: If you have a serious medical condition or are taking medication, it is always a good idea to check with your doctor before beginning a supplement program.
How Supplements Can Help
The following vitamins, minerals, and herbs can be very useful for treating a sore throat. They can be taken with over-the-counter or prescription drugs for colds, allergies, and strep throat.
Vitamin C helps fight upper respiratory infections, which are often the cause of sore throats. Vitamin C also has antihistamine properties, making it useful for allergy-related sore throats. It helps block the effect of inflammatory substances some people produce in response to allergens such as pollen and pet dander.
Vitamin A promotes healing of the mucous membranes, such as those in the throat. Pregnant women, however, should never take more than 5,000 IU per day (total) because vitamin A has been linked to birth defects.
The herbs echinacea and garlic are well-known for their natural antibacterial and antiviral properties. Start taking them as soon as the first symptoms develop.
Zinc lozenges, taken at the first sign of a cold-related sore throat, may help shorten its duration. Research indicates that zinc may actually destroy the cold virus, cutting the period of infection nearly in half. In addition, it appears that using zinc lozenges may be a good preventive–actually staving off a sore throat that’s threatening to develop as a result of a cold.
Herbal teas brewed from slippery elm or marshmallow root will help ease an irritated throat. Both are effective at coating and soothing mucous membranes that have become inflamed. This is the work of an ingredient called mucilage, a gummy, gel-like substance that when ingested forms a protective layer along the throat, digestive tract, and other areas.
To boost your immunity, add a few drops of goldenseal tincture to your herbal tea. Goldenseal has long been valued for its ability to soothe inflamed or infected mucous membranes, and it is especially effective against bacterial infections. Gargling with a goldenseal tincture diluted in some warm water can also relieve sore throat pain.
Gargle several times a day with a mixture of half a teaspoon of salt dissolved in a glass of warm water.
Use a cool-mist humidifier to keep your nose and throat lubricated. Be sure to keep the unit clean, however, or you’ll add harmful bacteria to the air you breathe. There are antibacterial solutions you can add to thwart bacterial growth.
Avoid smoke. Lay off cigarettes for a while if you smoke. If you don’t smoke, still try to avoid second-hand smoke.
Drink at least six to eight 8-ounce glasses of liquids daily–especially warm ones, such as soup and herbal teas. Try to avoid caffeinated beverages (coffee, black tea, colas and other soft drinks) because these will dehydrate you.
Suck on hard candy periodically. This will stimulate the saliva glands, keeping your throat moist.
When to Call a Doctor
- If a sore throat strikes suddenly and severely–it could be strep throat.
- If you have a sore throat plus a fever above 101°F but no signs of a cold.
- If you have difficulty swallowing or breathing.
- If you develop a rash along with a sore throat.
- If your sore throat (even a mild one) persists for more than a week.
From David Edelberg, M.D. at WholeHealth Chicago: The supplements on this chart will build up your immune system and help banish the pain and irritation of a sore throat. Use them together (unless otherwise noted) until the sore throat is gone. The supplements can be combined with over-the-counter or prescription drugs for colds, allergies, and strep throat. We also recommend that you take a daily high-potency multivitamin along with a good quality antioxidant complex.
How to take the supplements
Vitamin C is famous for its power to fight upper respiratory infections. In addition, because it’s an antihistamine, C can cut the amount of inflammatory compounds that people with allergies produce. Vitamin A increases the healing rate of mucous membranes in the throat and elsewhere.
Start taking both echinacea and garlic at the first sign of a prickle in the back of the throat–these herbs can act both as antivirals and antibiotics.
Studies have found that zinc lozenges may cut short the length of a cold–try them to help prevent a sore throat. If the taste of zinc turns you off or if you don’t have a cold, a tea of marshmallow or slippery elm could help. The herbs line the throat and soothe it. Slippery elm also contains substances (procyanidolic oligomers) that provide infection- and inflammation-fighting properties.
To pump up your body’s immunity power, include a few drops of goldenseal tincture in a cup of herbal tea; goldenseal contains the antibacterial compound berberine. Important:
We at WholeHealth Chicago strongly recommend that everyone take a high-potency multivitamin/mineral and well-balanced antioxidant complex every day. It may be necessary to adjust the dosages outlined below to account for your own daily vitamin regimen. All of our supplement recommendations also assume you are eating a healthful diet.
Be aware that certain cautions are associated with taking individual supplements, especially if you have other medical conditions and/or you’re taking medications. Key cautions are given in the listing below, but you need to see the WholeHealth Chicago Reference Library for a comprehensive discussion of each supplement’s cautions and drug/nutrient interactions.
For product recommendations and orders click here for the Natural Apothecary or call 773-296-6700 ext. 2001.
David Edelberg, MD