As a symptom of illness, sore
throat rivals fatigue for being both commonplace and a potential sign
of catastrophe. Usually, having a sore throat is nothing to worry about -- most
are caused by cold and
flu germs. In rare cases, however, a sore throat can signal something much
more serious. One of the first symptoms of infection caused by the dreaded ebola virus,
for example, is a sore throat.
And strep bacteria, a common cause of sore throat, especially in children,
can spread like wildfire if it gets into the blood, damaging the liver, brain,
kidneys, and other organs.
Jim Henson, creator of the Muppets, came down with a sore throat caused by a
strep infection late Sunday, May 13, 1990. He was admitted to the hospital with
pneumonia on Tuesday and died 20 hours later of septic
shock, a life-threatening response to a severe infection.
"In the preantibiotic era, people died from sore throats all the
time," says Robert T. Sataloff, MD, associate dean for clinical academic
specialties at Drexel University College of Medicine in Philadelphia.
"They'd end up with general toxicity and seed infections in the brain or
lungs, and they'd die."
So how do you know the difference between a scratchy throat that will
disappear on its own and the start of a potentially deadly infection?
Sore Throat Threat Level: Always "Guarded"
When it comes to sore throat, forget the "low" threat level. The
symptom always merits "guarded" or even "elevated" alertness.
Pay attention, but don't panic.
If you were talking loudly at a noisy, smoky bar, you may have strained your
vocal cords, resulting in throat soreness. If you have hay fever, or if your allergies are acting up, that can make your throat feel
scratchy. Even sleeping with your mouth open in the winter, when the air can
get as dry as the Sahara, can cause a sore throat.
Even if your sore throat is caused by a viral infection, such as a cold or
the flu, you probably can wait it out while drinking hot tea with honey and
sucking on throat lozenges to ease the discomfort. Because most sore throats
are caused by viruses that don't respond to antibiotics, there's not much you
can do about them outside of resting so your immune system is strong and ready
to fight the invaders.