8 Reasons Your Throat Burns
Not only is it uncomfortable, it’s disconcerting when you develop a scratchy throat that has kind of a burning feeling to it. Usually, a burning throat isn’t a sign of a serious illness, but it’s important to figure out what’s wrong rather than stressing out about all the things you think it could be. Instead, use this guide to discover potential culprits of a throat that feels like it’s on fire, and figure out what kind of doctor you should see and how to tame the burning. Check out eight common reasons you feel like your throat is burning.
1.) Common cold
Viral infections, such as colds, are usually the most common cause of a sore throat (pharyngitis). A scratchy throat is usually the first symptom, followed by a runny nose, sneezing, cough, and fatigue. Typically, you can shake a cold in a few days and meds like ibuprofen or acetaminophen can soothe your burning throat, as well as lozenges or a throat spray (look for one that’s a topical analgesic, it will say that on the label), and even hot tea. As with any viral infection, being precautious is key to prevention. “Good hand hygiene, limiting contact with people who are sick, and keeping your immune system as strong as possible with exercise, lots of vegetable intake, and good self-care to reduce stress, which may weaken the immune system,” says Joseph A. Ladapo, M.D., Ph.D., an associate professor of medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. Have a fever, too? Then it could be the flu or a bacterial infection.
What about Covid? “Sore throats can be seen with Covid-19 symptoms,” says Dr. Ladapo. “During this pandemic, it’s not unreasonable to consider getting tested if you have a sore throat. But it is probably unlikely to be coronavirus if there are no other symptoms.”
If, along with your burning throat, you have a fever, chills, congestion, a headache, and feel like you’ve been run over by a truck, chances are you have Influenza (flu). Like a cold, most people recover in a few days with plenty of rest, a pain reliever like Tylenol or Advil, and even some chicken soup (check out these additional strategies for relieving symptoms). But if your sore throat and the rest of your symptoms are getting worse, or lasting longer than two weeks, call your doctor. “A person should call a physician regarding a sore throat whenever it is accompanied by fever of 100.4 F or greater, chills or body aches, difficulty swallowing or chewing, a stiff or painful neck and/or swollen glands or a sore throat that lasts more than five to seven days, despite supportive measures,” says Ayanna Kersey-McMullen, D.O., who specializes in osteopathic medicine and integrative wellness. People who have certain chronic medical conditions (such as asthma, diabetes, or heart disease) and come down with the flu are at high risk of developing serious complications. So if you fall into that category, definitely call your doctor.
3.) Strep throat
This generally mild infection of the throat and tonsils, caused by bacteria called group A Streptococcus, can be culprit behind that burning feeling that has you afraid to swallow. Strep is usually spread the same way as the common cold or flu—by an infected person coughing or sneezing, expelling respiratory droplets. If you touch a surface with those germs, like a doorknob, or handle, and touch your nose or your mouth, then you can pretty much guess what happens next. See your doctor if you are experiencing chills, nausea, have a headache, and a red, swollen throat, or white patches on your tonsils. Your physician can give you a rapid antigen test, or simple throat swab test that garners results in minutes. If you indeed have strep, you will be prescribed antibiotics.
4.) Burning Mouth Syndrome
Yes, this is a real thing and an actual medical term. According to the Mayo Clinic, burning mouth syndrome typically entails a burning sensation in areas such as the lips, gums, tongue and palate, or even all over your mouth, and your throat. It sometimes also presents with dry mouth or a bitter or metallic taste in your mouth. Your doctor will usually want to rule out other causes for your symptoms before nailing down this diagnosis, so talk to them to help come up with an appropriate treatment plan.
5.) GERD/Acid Reflux
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) happens when stomach acid frequently flows back into your esophagus. This backwash, otherwise known as acid reflux, can wreak havoc on the lining of your esophagus and cause that burning sensation in your throat. In general, “avoid spicy foods, caffeine, large meals, or eating late at night especially when close to bedtime as these will exacerbate your symptoms,” says Dr. Kersey-McMullen. (Just be aware that some men may be able to get away with eating certain foods that are off limits for others.) Over-the-counter (OTC) treatment for GERD includes antacids that neutralize or stop the production of stomach acid, such as Mylanta, Rolaids and Tums, Prilosec, or Pepcid. If they don’t work, your physician may prescribe something stronger. Don’t ignore prolonged symptoms, either. “Make sure you talk to your doctor about treating your GERD, because if left untreated, GERD may lead to changes in the lining of the esophagus which can then lead to throat cancer,” she says. Also, see your doctor if your symptoms include chest pain.
A burning, irritated throat can also be caused by an allergic reaction to pollen, dust, cigarette smoke, mold, or pet dander. These allergies can bring on post-nasal drip (when congestion in the nose and sinuses drains down to the throat) leading to that tickly, scratchy feeling. OTC medications, including antihistamines like Claritin or Zyrtec, decongestants, and nasal sprays can help alleviate symptoms—so can taking certain steps to prevent them. And if your allergies are severe, see an allergist who can come up with a plan of action to combat the problem. But if you have a sore throat with fever and body aches, it might be a cold or the flu, and not your allergies.
If your tonsils are red and swollen or have white pus spots, and you’re experiencing throat pain and tenderness, or have white or yellow coating over your tongue, a stiff neck, and bad breath, it could be tonsillitis. The good news is this viral infection often goes away on its own after four to 10 days. But if you have a sore throat, a sudden severe fever, swollen lymph nodes, and no cold symptoms, you more than likely have a bacterial infection such as strep throat. Contact your doctor for a strep test.
Esophagitis, AKA inflammation of the esophagus, is another potential culprit of burning in your throat. It’s often caused by GERD/acid reflux, according to the Mayo Clinic, which, unsurprisingly, will typically lead to that telltale burning sensation in your throat. Esophagitis can also lead to difficulty or pain with swallowing.
GERD isn’t the only cause of this condition, though. It can also be a result of existing infections, certain medications or treatments for other illnesses, and food allergies. Since a doctor will need to treat the underlying causes, it’s important to get correctly diagnosed. That means it’s key to not just withstand a burning throat that isn’t explained by simple causes and to see someone about it.
Emilia Benton is a Houston-based freelance writer and editor. In addition to Women’s Health, she has contributed health, fitness and wellness content to Runner’s World, SELF, Prevention, Healthline, and POPSUGAR, among other publications. She is also a 10-time marathoner, frequent traveler and avid amateur baker.