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Cold, Flu, & Cough Health Center

Get to the Bottom of Your Sore Throat

A scratchy throat can be more than just an annoyance. Experts offer tips for assessing your sore throat “threat level.”
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Sore Throat Threat Level: Always "Guarded" continued...

"Wait a day, drink plenty of fluids, take pain  medication if you'd like," Sataloff tells WebMD. "You might as well try vitamin C. The data are controversial, but vitamin C doesn't do any harm, and there's some suggestion that vitamin C and antioxidants may have some efficacy. These are not unreasonable things to do when helping your body fight off an infection, and that's what it has to do since we don't treat viral infections with antibiotics."

Some people with gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) may experience hoarseness with a sore throat, but this will probably be accompanied by other symptoms, such as heartburn or the sour reflux of stomach contents.

(Do you have a favorite sore throat remedy? Tell us about it on the Health Cafe message board.)

When Sore Throat Hits "High" Threat

If your sore throat is accompanied by an achy feeling all over and you have a fever, you should elevate your threat level to "high." You might want to go to the doctor for a throat culture to see if you have a strep infection, especially if you have been around children, who frequently harbor strep bacteria.

"A strep infection can be dangerous for adults or kids," Sataloff says. "The greatest dangers are local inflammation and rapid spread to the throat and adjacent structures like the tonsils and lymph tissues. They can swell and obstruct the airway, and the bacteria can get into the bloodstream and cause infections elsewhere, such as the heart valves."

Inflammation is what makes a sore throat sore, and the greater the inflammation, the greater the danger, Sataloff explains.

"Extreme" Sore Throat Threat: Know the Symptoms

Raise your threat level to "extreme" if you are having difficulty swallowing or breathing, or if you develop a high fever with painful swelling of your lymph nodes. That could indicate tonsillitis, mononucleosis, or some other potentially dangerous infection. These symptoms can also signal strep throat.

"A simple sore throat can cause lots of problems," Sataloff says.

Lemierre's syndrome, for example, is a rare disorder that begins with a fever and sore throat. Soon blood clots form in the jugular vein, and when these infected clots break away, they carry the infection to other parts of the body.

The good news is that prompt treatment can forestall almost all the serious consequences of sore throat.

"We don't see them very often because people get treated," Sataloff says of the life-threatening complications of sore throat. "And if they don't get treated and the sore throat gets worse, then they get treated."

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Reviewed on January 20, 2009

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