Sore Throat

Sore throats are often an early symptom of respiratory tract infections such as colds and flu, but can also be due to other causes.

What are the symptoms of a sore throat?

A sore throat is characterised by pain, redness and inflammation of the mucous membranes of the throat. The larynx (voice box), tonsils and soft palate (the portion of the roof of the mouth towards the throat) are also sometimes involved.

The pain of a sore throat often feels worse when you’re swallowing or speaking, and may be accompanied by the urge to cough to clear your throat.

When a sore throat is caused by an infection, accompanying symptoms may include sneezing, a runny or stuffed up nose, cough, headache, aches and pains, fever and enlargement of the lymph glands.

What are the symptoms of tonsillitis?

Tonsillitis is a throat infection involving the tonsils, which are located towards the back of the mouth. In addition to a very painful sore throat and difficulty swallowing, characteristic signs and symptoms include redness and inflammation of the affected area (sometimes with spots of white or yellow pus that are clearly visible to the naked eye), fatigue, fever and swollen lymph nodes beneath the jaw. The adenoids are also sometimes involved, which may lead to congestion of the nasal passages and ears.

An acute case of tonsillitis usually resolves within a week or two, but some people experience chronic and/or recurrent infections.

What are the symptoms of laryngitis?

Laryngitis is inflammation of the larynx or voice box, which tends to come on suddenly and cause changes to the tone or volume of the voice (hoarseness) and pain when trying to speak.

It is often a symptom of an upper respiratory tract infection, in which case it is usually accompanied by the typical symptoms of sore throat, sneezing, a runny nose, fatigue and coughing.

What causes sore throats, tonsillitis and laryngitis?

Sore throats are usually symptoms of infection, often by one of the rhinoviruses that cause the common cold or Streptococcus bacteria that can cause tonsillitis and pharyngitis (leading to the popular term ‘strep throat’).

Less commonly, a severe or long lasting sore throat that’s accompanied by fatigue and tender enlarged lymph glands may be indicative of glandular fever (also known as infectious mononucleosis), which is caused by the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV).

Repeatedly experiencing sore throats and other signs of infection suggests that your immune system may be weak or run down.

Children are particularly likely to be affected because their immune systems are still developing, and they may not yet have built up resistance to common disease-causing organisms. Those with a family history of tonsillitis or allergic conditions such as dermatitis, asthma or hay fever are especially prone to recurrent tonsillitis.

In other cases, sore throats and laryngitis may be a symptom of reflux or a consequence of over-using your voice, inhaling irritating substances (such as smoke or toxic fumes) or the use of certain prescribed medicines.

Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) views the throat as a component of the Lung organ-meridian system, which also encompasses the lungs themselves, the mucous membranes of the mouth and nasal passages, and the immune defences.

In this ancient system of medicine, a sore, dry or itchy throat is often considered the result of excess Wind, especially if it starts suddenly and/or is accompanied by other symptoms of the common cold, such as headache, runny nose, nasal congestion or fever.

Often, excess Wind is accompanied by excess Heat, in which case additional symptoms may include dryness of the throat and mouth, thirst, sweating and aversion to cold and wind.

How do I treat sore throat?

Chinese herbs to clear Wind-Heat

The herbs Honeysuckle (Lonicera) and Forsythia have been prized for their cooling properties for hundreds of years, and are traditionally used together to address the early stages of conditions associated with an excess of Wind-Heat, such as sore throats, colds and flu.

Often, these herbs are taken in combination with others that expel Wind or clear excess Heat, such as Isatis Leaf and Root, which have traditionally been used to relieve sore throats and tonsillitis, especially when fever is present.

Andrographis and Echinacea relieve colds, flu and sore throats

Andrographis and Echinacea have immune-boosting properties and may aid in the management of viral infections such as colds, flu, tonsillitis and laryngitis, helping to reduce their severity, frequency and duration.

Diet and lifestyle recommendations for a sore throat

  • In TCM, hot and dry symptoms such as a sore throat suggest that the Lung organ-meridian system needs nourishment and moisture, and may benefit from foods such as cooked pears and apples, chicken broth, figs, sweet potatoes and eggs
  • To relieve the heat of a sore throat, also eat plenty of cooling foods, such as cucumber, citrus, silverbeet, bok choy and cabbage
  • Dairy products are best avoided as they may promote the production of mucus
  • Gargling warm water with lemon juice and raw honey in it may also help soothe and moisten the throat, but from the perspective of TCM is not advisable when mucus is present as honey is believed to promote Dampness and therefore the production of phlegm
  • Avoid cigarette smoke and other inhaled irritants
  • If you’ve lost your voice, don’t try to talk or whisper, as doing so may worsen your symptoms and slow down your recovery

When should you see your doctor or other health professional about sore throat?

  • A bout of sore throat, tonsillitis or laryngitis that is severe or persists for more than a fortnight in adults (less time in children and babies) should be investigated and treated by your doctor or health professional
  • Recurrent episodes of sore throat also warrant professional investigation
  • Allergies and food intolerances may predispose some children to tonsillitis and other recurrent respiratory infections; talk to your healthcare professional if you’re concerned your child may be affected