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Pharyngitis - viral

Definition

Viral pharyngitis is inflammation of the pharynx (the part of the throat between the tonsils and the larynx).

Causes

Most sore throats are caused by viral pharyngitis.

Pharyngitis may occur as part of a viral infection that also involves other organs, such as the lungs or bowel.

Symptoms

Exams and Tests

Your health care provider usually diagnoses pharyngitis by examining your throat. A lab test of fluid from your throat will show that bacteria (such as group A streptococcus, or strep) is not the cause of the sore throat.

Treatment

There is no specific treatment for viral pharyngitis. You can relieve symptoms by gargling with warm salt water several times a day (use ½ teaspoon of salt in a glass of warm water).  Taking anti-inflammatory drugs or medications, such as acetaminophen, can control fever. Excessive use of anti-inflammatory lozenges or sprays may make a sore throat worse.

It is important NOT to take antibiotics when a sore throat is due to a viral infection. The antibiotics will not help. Using them to treat viral infections helps bacteria become resistant to antibiotics.

With some sore throats (such as those caused by infectious mononucleosis), the lymph nodes in the neck may become very swollen. They may be treated with anti-inflammatory drugs, such as prednisone.

Outlook (Prognosis)

Symptoms usually go away within a week to 10 days.

Possible Complications

Complications of viral pharyngitis are extremely uncommon.

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Make an appointment with your health care provider if symptoms last longer than expected, or do not improve with self-care. Always seek medical care if you have a sore throat and have extreme discomfort or difficulty swallowing or breathing.

Prevention

Most cases are not preventable, because the viruses and bacteria that cause sore throats are commonly found in the environment. However, always wash your hands after contact with a person who has a sore throat. Avoid kissing or sharing cups and eating utensils with sick individuals.

References

Frye R, Bailey J, Blevins AE. Clinical inquiries. Which treatments provide the most relief for pharyngitis pain? J Fam Pract.2011;60(5):293-294.

Melio FR, Berge LR. Upper respiratory tract infection. In: Marx JA, Hockberger RS, Walls RM, et al, eds. Rosen's Emergency Medicine: Concepts and Clinical Practice. 8th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2014:chap 75.


Review Date: 5/5/2014
Reviewed By: Linda J. Vorvick, MD, Medical Director and Director of Didactic Curriculum, MEDEX Northwest Division of Physician Assistant Studies, Department of Family Medicine, UW Medicine, School of Medicine, University of Washington, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.
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