Everyone experiences sore throats when they have a cold or flu. But there are other reasons for sore throats that may be symptomatic of more serious problems.

Strep Throat

Strep throat is caused by streptococcal bacteria (strep) in the throat and often the tonsils. Symptoms include sudden severe sore throat, pain swallowing, a fever over 101oF, swollen tonsils and lymph nodes, and white or yellow spots on a reddened back of the throat. Strep throat is highly contagious, with a two-to-five day incubation period. It can be diagnosed through a physical examination and a throat culture. Strep throat is treated with antibiotics and usually resolves in three to seven days, although the healing time can be up to two weeks. It is important to have strep throat diagnosed and begin treatment as soon as possible in order to prevent its spread to others.

Inflamed Tonsils and Adenoids

Tonsillitis is an inflammation of the tonsils located in the back of the throat on both sides of the tongue. Tonsils are part of the body’s natural immune system. This tissue captures bacteria and viruses to either prevent them from entering the body or trigger the appropriate immune response. The back of the throat may appear red or swollen or have a white or yellow coating covering the tonsils. The adenoids (tissue high in the throat behind the nose and soft palate) may also be inflamed and swollen, impeding swallowing and/or breathing. Symptoms include a severe sore throat, painful or difficult swallowing, coughing, headache, fever, chills and swelling of the cheeks and neck. Tonsillitis may also be caused by strep throat. Antibiotic medication is generally prescribed to treat the inflammation (usually penicillin). Tonsillitis usually resolves in four to seven days if caused by a virus. Chronic cases of repeated tonsillitis may require surgical removal of the tonsils and/or adenoids (tonsillectomy and adenoidectomy). An adenoidectomy may also be recommended for children experiencing chronic ear infections.

Laryngitis

The larynx allows air to pass in and out of the lungs while preventing solids (food) and liquids from entering the lungs. The larynx also contributes to sound production by the vocal cords. Laryngitis is an inflammation of the larynx, the top portion of the windpipe (trachea). It is characterized by hoarseness, coughing, difficulty in breathing for some children and, occasionally, loss of voice. In addition to an infection, laryngitis may be caused by acid reflux or nodules, polyps or nerve damage on the vocal cords. Laryngitis usually heals by itself within two weeks with the help of increased air moisture, drinking plenty of fluids and resting the voice.

Pharyngitis

The pharynx is tissue that resides behind the mouth an soft palate and acts as a pathway for food and liquids to enter the esophagus and air to enter the lungs. An inflammation of the pharynx is called pharyngitis. Painful swallowing is the most common symptom. Pharyngitis may also occur along with laryngitis. Again, the inflammation usually heals by itself with rest, fluids and air humidity.

Epiglottitis

The epiglottis is a flap of tissue at the base of the tongue that keeps food from going into the windpipe when swallowing. Epiglottitis occurs when this tissue becomes inflamed and infected. The swelling of the epiglottis can block the tongue and result in a medical emergency. In addition to infections, epiglottitis can be caused by chemicals (illicit drugs), severe heat damage (thermal epiglottitis) or trauma. If you experience a sore throat that hampers your ability to swallow, seek immediate medical attention.

If you have a sore throat that causes pain or won’t heal, please contact our office and schedule an appointment with one of our otolaryngologists.

Snoring/Sleep Apnea

Snoring is a noise produced during sleep that originates in the back of the throat or nose. Snoring occurs when the muscles in the back of the mouth, tongue and throat relax while sleeping, which narrows or blocks the airway. Breathing causes your uvula (soft palate) to vibrate and knock against the back of the throat, resulting in the snoring sound. Swollen or infected tonsils and adenoids, blocked nasal passages or a deviated septum can also narrow the airway and lead to snoring. Obesity, some medications and alcohol consumption before bedtime may contribute to snoring.

Snoring can also be a sign of a more serious problem, known as obstructive sleep apnea. With sleep apnea, the relaxed muscles at the back of the throat cause the throat to close, which stops breathing, typically from 20 seconds to up to three minutes. Most sleep apnea sufferers experience this cycle of snoring, apnea and awakening five or more times a night. Sleep apnea has a higher incidence among people age 40 and older, people with a family history of snoring and in postmenopausal women.

Because it disrupts the normal sleep pattern, sleep apnea makes you feel tired, slows your reaction time and can lead to confused thinking and memory loss. Other complications of sleep apnea can be high blood pressure, heart attacks, stroke, hypertension, anxiety and depression.

Sleep apnea is diagnosed through a physical examination with particular emphasis on weight, blood pressure and airway constriction in the nose, throat and lungs. In many cases, a sleep test will be recommended at a sleep laboratory. The sleep test monitors 16 different body functions while you sleep and can help identify the exact cause and severity of the sleep apnea.

Simple techniques for alleviating mild apnea are to sleep on your sides (not on your back) and avoid alcohol or sedatives before bedtime. In mild cases, treatment may consist of nasal decongestants, inhaled steroid preparations or oral mouth devices that force the jaw forward to prevent the tongue from falling back and constricting the throat. For more difficult cases, your doctor may prescribe a Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP). This device straps onto your face and generates pressurized air, which helps keep your airway open during sleep. In severe cases, surgery may be called for to open the airway, including a tonsillectomy, adenoidectomy or deviated septum repair.

If you suffer from debilitating snoring or think you may have sleep apnea, please contact our office and schedule an appointment with one of our otolaryngologists.