Sore throats are common reasons for office visits. Illness, irritation from smoke; allergies; and other environmental factors can cause them. Many illnesses can cause sore throat, including strep; herpes simplex; mononucleosis (or mono); viral upper respiratory infections (remember, the throat is the upper end of the respiratory tract and can easily be infected by the same germs that cause bronchitis); gonorrhea; and candida, to name a few.
The treatment depends on the cause. If it seems to be strep, you're likely to get antibiotics. If your history and physical is suggestive of mono, you'll probably get a blood test to confirm it, and information on what to do until you're better.
Many use folk remedies for sore throats. These include hot water with lemon juice; hot tea; or zinc / slippery elm lozenges. These are unlikely to hurt you when used as directed, and are often very soothing.
One specific technique that I've found useful is hot lavage (which just means "washing") of the throat. Heat has several effects. First, the heat itself can kill some germs. Next, it increases the blood flow to the area. This has a few results: more of your body's cells go to the area, which then alert your immune system to the problem. More white blood cells come to the area, which helps your body fight the infection. It also carries more antibiotics (if you're taking them) to the area .
Heat also speeds up chemical and biological reactions. That's why a lizard on a hot afternoon is going to be a lot faster than the same lizard on a cold morning. The increased metabolic rate causes the bacteria to suck up the antibiotic faster, causing them to die faster. Your body's germ-fighting white blood cells will work faster, too, whether they're fighting a bacteria or a virus.
Many people tell me they get better faster when they wash their sore throats with hot water. This is NOT the same as gargling. When you gargle, the ounce or two of hot water gets cooled down immediately by all the blood flowing through the big blood vessels in your neck, and don't really heat up the tissues.
Here's what some professional singers do. Being singers, they were particularly concerned with keeping their throat healthy. You, too, can wash your throat effectively at home. All it takes is a source of hot water (test the temperature first!) attached to a flexible hose. Shower massagers work well when you unscrew the head. Some of the singers told me they'd carry a hot water lavage setup on the road with them, usually consisting of a hot water bottle with attached tube. You can buy one of these at most drugstores.
To use it, remove the nozzle from the hose so you can get a stream of water. Adjust the water temperature so it's hot, but not uncomfortably so. Then, with about a six or eight inch high “fountain” of water, bend over the side of your tub or shower.
You need to be bending over so your head and shoulders are lower than your chest. This keeps water from running into your lungs.
Play the stream of hot water onto the back of your throat while gargling. Exhaling helps keep the water out of your windpipe, too. Repeat and continue for several minutes. The more often you repeat this, within reason, the faster you're likely to get better. Remember, the earlier in the illness you do this, the better the effect.
There's one dangerous condition that can start as a sore throat, called "epiglottitis." The epiglottis is the flap in the back of your throat that covers your windpipe when you swallow. Rarely, it can become infected. If it does, the most noticeable symptom is extremely painful swallowing. It's typical to find patients with this condition carrying a paper cup into which they spit all their saliva, in order to keep from having to swallow.
If the epiglottis does get infected, it can get dramatically swollen. In severe cases it can completely block the windpipe. Since many cases of this are missed initially, it's especially important to consult your doctor promptly if your symptoms become worse.
© copyright flash gordon md 1993