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What Are the Most Common Causes of Throat Swelling?

By Haven Esme
Updated Jan 27, 2024
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Throat swelling is normally caused by some sort of infection that triggers an immune response. Incidences of streptococcal pharyngitis, also known as strep throat, tend to be some of the most common, along with infections of the tonsils known as tonsillitis. Both are normally treated with antibiotics and monitored for recurrence. Swollen glands in response to infection or inflammation elsewhere in the body can also impact the throat. Throat-specific medications can bring temporary relief in these cases, though actual treatment usually starts with a diagnosis of the underlying issue. It’s also possible for swelling to be caused by allergens or environmental triggers, and often presents as hoarseness; in rarer and more serious cases, swelling can be a response to severe allergic reaction, and can be life threatening. This sort of swelling usually happens very quickly and typically occurs in many parts of the body simultaneously.

Understanding Swelling Generally

Swelling anywhere in the body is typically an immune response triggered in an attempt to fight bacteria or to mitigate the effects of some sort of foreign substance. In the throat, swelling is usuall localized to the glands that surround the esophageal chamber. These glands are typically soft and somewhat porous, but when inflamed can double or sometimes even triple their size. This can cause feelings of airway constriction, soreness, and general discomfort. In most cases treatment is pretty straightforward — many different medications and home remedies can help reduce the irritation, even if just temporarily — but knowing the cause is usually key to an effective long-term solution.

Bacterial Infections

Strep throat is one of the most common causes of swelling. It’s a bacterial infection caused by the streptococcus bacteria. In addition to a swollen throat, individuals with strep throat typically also experience a fever, pain or difficulty swallowing, and other cold and flu-like symptoms. They might also notice white or yellow spots on their throat or tonsils. Antibiotics are usually the best course of action in these instances.

Tonsil Infections

Tonsillitis can also cause the throat to swell, and typically develops when infections of the throat are persistent. The condition typically occurs when the tonsils become infected with bacteria. It can be treated with antibiotics, but it isn’t uncommon for an individual to have the tonsils removed, especially when the infections seem to be persistent. Over time, antibiotics will lose their efficacy if used to treat the same thing, which requires people to take stronger and stronger drugs to get the same results. In most cases, medical experts recommend removal for patients who experience five or more episodes of infected tonsils in one year..

Swollen Glands

Sometimes, more generalized problems in the body can cause throat swelling if the glandular system is involved. Glands throughout the body act as a defense against bacteria, and they can swell in response to an infection located in another part of the body. For example, infections in the scalp and ear can also cause the throat to swell thanks to their proximity and connectedness.

Allergens or Environmental Pollutants

Allergic reactions may also cause swelling. Specific foods or food additives are some of the most frequent triggers, but insect bites and stings and even certain medications can be causes, too. For example, an allergic reaction to a bee sting or even penicillin could be a cause. When the reaction is serious, which is to say, when the swelling is so intense that it blocks the passage of air and makes breathing difficult or impossible, a person may need a shot of epinephrine to reverse the swelling. Emergency medical care is also usually required.

Not all allergic reactions are so severe. People in very dusty or dry climates often complain of throat swelling, particularly when the conditions are new. Swelling can also accompany seasonal allergies or mild respiratory responses to things like dander or animal fur in people with specific histamine-related allergies.

Care and Treatment

There are numerous things that people can do to relieve throat swelling. One natural remedy is to apply heat, warming a washcloth or heating pad and applying it to the neck three or four times a day. The heat should alleviate some of the pain temporarily. Gargling salt water and drinking hot beverages can also temporarily relive any affiliated pain.

Swelling that doesn’t go down on its own after a day or so may be a sign of a more serious condition, particularly if things seem to be getting worse, not better, with time. Getting a medical evaluation is usually a good idea in these instances. Physician and other qualified care providers can examine the throat using a number of tools and tests to diagnose the swelling and administer the appropriate treatment.

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Discussion Comments
By Rundocuri — On Feb 27, 2014

Good point Talentryto. A medical professional can also help the patient find the best sore throat remedies for his or her diagnosed problem.

By Talentryto — On Feb 26, 2014

Throat pain and swelling are usually not symptoms of serious conditions, but anyone experiencing these problems for more than a day or so should see his or her doctor. It's better to rule out major issues and treat possible infections early than to wait until such problems get worse.

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