Is My Sore Throat a Sign of Something Serious?

A sore throat is right up there with a stuffy or runny nose on the list of common symptoms. But common doesn’t equal harmless. Read on to learn more.

Sore throats are among the most common symptoms a person can experience. But while most of the time there’s nothing to worry about, there are certain times when it’s best to visit your primary care physician.

A sore throat may be a symptom of the flu. If the pain is persistent and accompanied by heartburn, it may be a signal of gastroesophageal reflux disease or GERD, in which stomach acids back up in your esophagus.

“GERD is when gastric fluid [acid and bile] goes up to the esophagus due to a weak muscle called the lower esophageal sphincter,” said Nikolai A. Bildzukewicz, MD, a surgeon who specializes in upper GI and general surgery at Keck Medicine of USC. “Severe cases cause irritation, ulceration in the throat and damage to vocal cords.”

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In rare cases, a sore throat may be a sign of throat, tongue or voice box cancer. If you suspect that you have any of the above, make an appointment to see your doctor.

Acid reflux can be treated through dietary and lifestyle modifications, medications, and in some cases, surgery is a treatment option,” said Bildzukewicz, who is also an assistant professor of clinical surgery at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. “Long-term reflux can cause laryngeal ulcers or granulomas, vocal fold scarring, pneumonia, Barrett’s esophagus and, in some cases, esophageal or throat cancer.”

If you have a fever and general aches and pains along with that sore throat, you may have strep throat, particularly if you have been around children or anyone else with the contagious condition. Getting treatment is essential if you have strep throat, because the inflammation can spread to surrounding lymph tissue and your tonsils, potentially obstructing your airways and making it hard to breathe.

In extreme cases, the bacteria can get into your bloodstream and cause infections in your heart valves, which can be life threatening. It can also spread to your other organs, such as the liver, brain and kidneys. The good news is that strep is easy to diagnose with a throat culture and responds well to treatment with antibiotics.

If it’s your child who has a sore throat, it may be a symptom of tonsillitis, a viral or bacterial infection that typically is seen in children from preschool age to mid-teens. Tonsillitis is rare in adulthood.

Other symptoms of tonsillitis are red, swollen tonsils; white or yellow patches on the tonsils; pain when swallowing; and fever. Tonsillitis is usually caused by a virus, which means it should clear up on its own, but if your child’s symptoms haven’t improved in 48 hours or he or she is experiencing the aches and pains that go along with strep, your child should see your pediatrician.

But most of the time, a sore throat, while painful and inconvenient, is nothing to be overly concerned about. Sore throats often are a symptom of hay fever or allergies. They are also common in the winter, when the air is dry. If you sleep with your mouth open or snore, you may wake up with a sore throat, and the solution may be as simple as a humidifier. If you were at a concert or loud party or club the night before, chances are good you strained your vocal cords.

Your best bet in these cases is to practice self-care, including drinking plenty of hot tea with honey and sucking on throat lozenges. Your sore throat is most likely caused by these environmental factors or a viral infection that doesn’t require antibiotics and should start to get better on its own in a few days. If you find you’ve lost your voice, rest your vocal cords and try not to whisper.

Throat feeling scratchy? See your primary care physician to find out what the most effective treatment options are for you.

If you are in the Los Angeles area and are looking for a new primary care physician, be sure to schedule an appointment by calling (800) USC-CARE (800-872-2273) or by visiting

by Anne Fritz