What Causes Throat Infections?
An overwhelming majority of sore throats are caused by the wide range of viruses circulating in your environment. Viruses are hardy microbes which survive in your body and are easily passed from other people to you. Most are caught by inhaling or swallowing droplets spread by people sneezing or coughing into the air near you but they can also be caught by direct contact with contaminated surfaces. Viruses cause pain, redness and a raised temperature. Sometimes your whole body will ache and you may get a hoarse voice.
Unfortunately, we do not yet have effective medications to kill these viruses. Because they live inside your cells any treatment aimed at destroying the virus also destroys cells - including the uninfected ones. Thus the cure may be worse than the disease.
Fortunately, most viral sore throats only last a few days. The body fights off the infection itself. The best treatment is aimed at lessening the symptoms and encouraging a speedy recovery:
• Take regular aspirin, paracetamol or another analgesic
• Have saltwater gargles
• Use throat sprays and lozenges from your pharmacist
• Drink plenty of fluid
• Rest when possible - it will hasten your recovery
• Try not to venture out where you can spread your infection to others
• Don't smoke
One virus causing marked sore throats needs special mention because it does not always follow the usual pattern. This is the Epstein-Barr virus which may cause, among other things, prolonged sore throats and generalised tiredness and weakness. The condition is known as glandular fever or infectious mononucleosis. It is most common in teenagers and young adults; as with other viruses, there is no specific therapy other than rest and regular paracetamol, aspirin or another analgesic. This is a common virus and many people would have had a mild infection.
A bacterial sore throat usually produces a high temperature, very bad breath, marked pain in the throat (which may even be felt in your ears) and swollen tender glands under your chin.
This can occur at any age but most often occurs in children and young adults. This is because as you get older your tonsils diminish in size and are less susceptible to flaring up when exposed to the germs. You also develop some resistance.
You will need to take the full course of antibiotics prescribed and deal with the symptoms as you do for a viral sore throat. Usually, there is a rapid response to antibiotics and in about two days you should feel considerably better.
Non-Infectious Sore Throats
Although most sore throats are caused by germs - viruses and bacteria - there are a few situations which are common but not infections.
• Mouth Breathing/Snoring
If you snore or sleep with your mouth open you will have noticed a dry, sticky sore throat on waking. This is because there is no lubrication as the saliva has dried up by the rush of dry air through your mouth. A little rinsing and gargling sorts the problem out. The snoring/mouth breathing is a separate problem which may need assessment by your GP.
If you have bad indigestion and wake with a bad taste in your mouth and soreness in the back of your throat, it could be the reflux of acidic stomach juices into your throat while you are lying down. This soreness tends to settle during the morning and return the next night. This is diagnosed by your GP after other causes have been excluded. It is treated with antacid therapy.
Excess indulgence in alcohol contributes to sore throats by making you breathe through your mouth and by stimulating acid reflux. It also dehydrates your body, making it difficult to get saliva flowing.
Should You See A Doctor?
Here are a few pointers which might help you:
• Assess how sick you are. You are the best judge
• Take regular aspirin, paracetamol or another analgesic for 48 hours. If the pain is not settling easily, seek help
• Check with your close family and colleagues to see if they have similar symptoms. This points to a viral cause
• If you have bad breath and large swollen glands then antibiotics are more likely to be needed
• If you smoke tobacco you are more likely to have destroyed your body's defences against bacteria, and viral sore throats can even develop secondary bacterial infections
There are some simple things you can do to maintain your health and prevent a lot of sore throats (or at least minimise the duration):
• Eat a balanced diet at all times
• Do not smoke
• Avoid crowded places during the 'sneezing season'
• Avoid excess alcohol
• Exercise regularly
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