Throat Infection: Types, Symptoms, Causes, Diagnosis, and Treatment | Max Hospital

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Throat Infection: Causes, Diagnosis and Treatment

By Dr. Vandana Boobna in Internal Medicine

Jan 22 , 2024 | 7 min read

What is a Throat Infection?

Throat infection, commonly known as pharyngitis, is a prevalent health issue impacting individuals across all age groups. It involves the painful inflammation of the pharynx, the tube extending from the back of the mouth to the oesophagus or larynx. In most cases, throat infections are not severe and tend to go away within one to two weeks. That said, certain throat infections can give rise to more severe complications, including pneumonia or rheumatic fever.

Types of Throat Infection

Throat infections can be broadly categorised into several types based primarily on the cause of the disease:

Viral Throat Infections

These are the most common types of throat infections. They are typically caused by viruses such as the common cold, influenza (flu), and mononucleosis. Viral infections usually resolve on their own and are treated symptomatically.

Bacterial Throat Infections

These are caused by bacteria, with Streptococcus pyogenes, or group A streptococcus, being the most common bacterial cause. This type of infection is often referred to as strep throat. Bacterial infections, like strep throat, often require antibiotics. In recurrent cases, a procedure like tonsillectomy surgery may be recommended as part of tonsillitis treatment.

Fungal Throat Infections

Less common than viral and bacterial infections, fungal infections of the throat can occur, especially in individuals with weakened immune systems. An example is oral thrush, caused by the Candida fungus.

Allergic Throat Infections

Sometimes, allergies can lead to throat irritation and infection-like symptoms, often accompanied by other allergic reactions like sneezing, a runny nose, and itchy eyes.

Irritant-Induced Throat Infections

Exposure to irritants such as cigarette smoke, pollution, or chemical fumes can cause irritation and inflammation, mimicking a throat infection.

Signs and Symptoms of Throat Infection

The signs and symptoms of a throat infection can vary depending on the cause. An ENT specialist should evaluate persistent or severe symptoms to rule out more serious conditions, such as throat cancer. But generally, they include:

  • Sore Throat: This is the most common symptom, characterised by pain, discomfort, or a scratchy sensation in the throat.
  • Painful Swallowing: Difficulty or swallowing pain is often associated with throat infections.
  • Swollen Tonsils: Inflammation and swelling of the tonsils, sometimes with white patches or streaks of pus.
  • Redness in the Throat: The back of the throat may appear red or swollen.
  • Hoarseness or Loss of Voice: Changes in voice quality, ranging from mild hoarseness to complete loss of voice.
  • Fever: This is especially common in bacterial infections like strep throat.
  • Swollen Lymph Nodes: The lymph nodes in the neck may become tender and swollen.
  • Lousy Breath: Often observed in bacterial throat infections.
  • Cough: A persistent cough may accompany a throat infection, especially if it's viral.
  • Headache: This can occur alongside other symptoms.
  • General Malaise: Feelings of being unwell, fatigue, or weakness.
  • Nausea or Vomiting: Throat infections can sometimes cause stomach upset in children.
  • Runny Nose or Congestion: Often seen in viral infections like the common cold.
  • Appetite Loss: Due to pain and discomfort while swallowing.

Throat Infection Causes

Various factors, including infectious agents and environmental conditions, can cause throat infections. Here are some common causes:

Viral Infections

The majority of throat infections are caused by viruses. Common causes include:

  • Rhinoviruses, which cause the common cold.
  • Influenza virus, responsible for the flu.
  • Epstein-Barr virus, leading to infectious mononucleosis (mono).
  • Coronaviruses, including those that cause COVID-19.
  • Adenoviruses, often associated with the common cold, can also cause a sore throat.

Bacterial Infections

Bacteria can also cause throat infections, with the most common being:

  • Group A streptococcus, causing strep throat.
  • Corynebacterium diphtheriae causes diphtheria (rare in countries with routine vaccination).

Fungal Infections

These are less common, but can occur, especially in people with weakened immune systems or those using inhaled steroids. An example is a candida albicans infection leading to oral thrush.

Possible Risk Factors for a Throat Infection

Several factors can increase the risk of developing a throat infection:

  • Age: Children and teenagers or elderly people are more susceptible to throat infections due to their less robust immune systems, making them more prone to bacterial and viral illnesses.
  • Environmental Factors: Residing in a polluted environment and exposure to dust, pollen, and other allergens can cause throat irritation, potentially leading to discomfort. Throat inflammation may also elevate the likelihood of contracting bacterial and viral infections.
  • Tobacco Smoke Exposure: Consistent smoking and exposure to second-hand smoke can irritate the throat lining, resulting in throat pain. Prolonged use of tobacco products also heightens the risk of developing mouth and throat cancer over time.
  • Use of Immunosuppressive Medications: Medications that suppress the immune system, such as those used in certain autoimmune conditions or after organ transplantation, can raise the risk of infections.
  • Poorly Managed Stress: Chronic stress may weaken the immune system, making individuals more susceptible to infections.

Read more - Air Pollution and Your Throat: Understanding the Connection

Throat Infection Diagnosis

ENT specialists typically recommend a range of diagnostic tests before initiating treatment for a throat infection to assess the severity of the condition and the patient's overall health. Some commonly employed diagnostic tests include:

  • Physical Examination: A thorough physical examination is conducted by a healthcare provider, involving use of a lighted instrument to examine the throat, ears, and nasal passages.
  • Strep Test: The throat infection specialist performs a strep test to check for the presence of group A Streptococcus bacteria in the patient's throat. This painless and quick test involves using a specialised, long cotton swab to swipe the back of the throat. Subsequently, the swab is used for a rapid test or sent to a laboratory for further analysis. Positive test results indicate the presence of streptococcus bacteria.

Throat Infection Treatment 

The treatment for throat infections varies depending on the cause of the infection:

Viral Throat Infections

  • Rest: Ensuring ample rest helps the body to heal.
  • Hydration: Drinking plenty of fluids keeps the throat moist and helps to reduce discomfort.
  • Pain Relievers: Over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers like acetaminophen or ibuprofen can help relieve pain and reduce fever.
  • Throat Lozenges and Sprays: These can soothe the throat and reduce discomfort.

Bacterial Throat Infections

  • Antibiotics: Antibiotics are prescribed if the infection is bacterial, such as strep throat. It's essential to complete the entire course of antibiotics as prescribed.

The rest of the treatments are similar to those for viral infections, aimed at relieving symptoms.

Fungal Infections

  • Antifungal Medications: Oral antifungal medications or tablets may be prescribed.

Irritant-induced throat infections

  • Avoiding Irritants: Staying away from the causative irritants, such as smoke or chemical fumes, is crucial.

Symptom management is similar to that for viral infections.

Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)

  • Acid Blockers or Antacids: Medications to reduce stomach acid can help if GERD is causing throat symptoms.

Home Remedies for Throat Infection

Several home remedies can help alleviate the symptoms of a throat infection. However, these remedies should be used as supportive care, not as a replacement for professional medical treatment, especially in severe cases or when bacterial infection is suspected. Here are some common home remedies:

  • Honey: Soothing a sore throat can be achieved by consuming tea or warm lemon water mixed with honey, especially for those unable to take conventional cold medications. Honey serves as an effective remedy for soothing sore throats and coughs.
  • Baking Soda Gargle: Relief for a sore throat is possible through gargling with a mixture of baking soda and salt water. This oral solution helps diminish bacteria and inhibits fungal growth. The National Cancer Institute (NCI) recommends gargling with a blend of 1 cup of warm water, 1/4 teaspoon of baking soda, and 1/8 teaspoon of salt.
  • Chamomile Tea: The tea is known for its anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and astringent properties, which aid in treating sore throats. It stimulates the immune system to address the underlying causes of a sore throat.
  • Peppermint: Renowned for its breath-freshening properties, peppermint also possesses anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, and antiviral qualities. The compound menthol in peppermint helps thin mucus, relieving sore throats and coughs.
  • Fenugreek: A common remedy for sore throats, fenugreek, when mixed with honey and lemon, helps reduce fever and relieves coughs and colds.
  • Marshmallow Root: This herb contains mucilage, a mucus-like substance that coats and soothes a sore throat. Available in various forms, including teas, supplements, and tablets, marshmallow root helps alleviate throat discomfort.
  • Licorice Root: Boiling liquorice root in water and slowly sipping the solution can effectively treat a sore throat.
  • Slippery Elm: Containing mucilage, slippery elm, when mixed with water, forms a gel that coats and soothes the throat. It's a traditional remedy for sore throats.
  • Garlic: With natural antibacterial properties, garlic, specifically its compound allicin, fights off viral infections. Daily garlic supplements can help prevent and treat upper respiratory tract infections, including those leading to a sore throat.
  • Cayenne Pepper: Serving as a pain reliever, cayenne pepper contains capsaicin, a natural compound that blocks pain receptors. Ingesting cayenne with warm water and honey can alleviate sore throat pain.
  • Broth or Soup: Chicken soup, known for its effectiveness in respiratory and throat conditions, soothes sore throats and inhibits the movement of white blood cells called neutrophils.
  • Steam and Humidity: Inhaling steam for 10-15 minutes can ease a sore throat. Boil water, place it in a bowl, cover your head with a towel, and breathe normally, allowing the steam to enter your mouth and nose.


Understanding the causes, diagnosis, and treatment of throat infections is crucial for effective healthcare. Prompt diagnosis through physical examinations and tests, including strep tests, ensures appropriate treatment. For comprehensive care, leading healthcare providers like Max Healthcare offer state-of-the-art facilities and a multidisciplinary approach. With a commitment to patient well-being, we combine expertise and advanced technology to provide personalised and effective solutions for throat infections, emphasising holistic health outcomes.

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