Despite being painful, a burning feeling in the throat is often more irritating than dangerous. Various issues may cause this sensation, most of which are minor. Understanding the causes and their other symptoms can help a person know whether or not a burning throat is a sign of something more serious.
Acid Reflux and Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease
A valve usually protects the throat from the powerful acid within the stomach. Under certain circumstances, this valve weakens and stomach acid may rise into the throat. This backwash is acid reflux. If it occurs frequently, doctors refer to the condition as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Acid reflux causes a burning in the chest and throat, as well as symptoms like difficulty swallowing and chronic cough.
Conditions such as the flu and common cold can cause mucus in the nose to accumulate before eventually overflowing and dripping into the throat. This post-nasal drip is responsible for many of the symptoms we associate with sore throats. The mucus can irritate the throat and even lead to swollen tonsils. In severe cases or more sensitive people, post-nasal drip can cause a burning sensation.
One of the most common throat infections, strep throat, can cause a burning feeling in the throat. Group A streptococci bacteria are responsible for strep throat and typically spread through infected droplets in the air. In addition to a sore throat, this infection can cause fever, nausea, and vomiting which may further the burning sensation. Strep throat requires antibiotics to help the body fend it off.
Mono or infectious mononucleosis is an extremely contagious infection that includes a sore throat among its many symptoms. In some cases, doctors misdiagnose this condition as strep throat. Other possible symptoms include swollen tonsils and lymph nodes, which may also become painful. Recovery requires plenty of rest and drinking fluids regularly.
Burning Mouth Syndrome
Burning mouth syndrome is a chronic burning sensation in the mouth and throat without a clear cause. Some people describe this symptom as “scalding” pain. Additional effects of burning mouth syndrome are a loss of taste, change in taste, dry mouth, and increased thirst. The pain may occur suddenly or develop over time. While the cause is often unknown, working with a doctor can help reduce symptom severity.
Also known as quinsy, a peritonsillar abscess is a buildup of pus that develops due to infection behind a tonsil. Symptoms vary, but fever, a burning throat, trouble opening the mouth, and voice changes are most common. The burning sensation and pain are typically worse on one side. Treatment requires a combination of antibiotics, pain relievers, fluids, and pus drainage.
Though rare, burning pain when swallowing can be a sign of esophageal or throat cancer. This pain is sometimes difficult to differentiate from conditions like strep throat. However, while pain from other conditions should improve over a few weeks, if cancer is the cause, it will continue. Additional symptoms include chest pain, vomiting, or trouble swallowing.
Practicing a few protective measures can help prevent burning sensations in the throat. Avoid smoking because tobacco smoke contains toxic chemicals that irritate the throat lining. Similarly, limit exposure to chemical irritants, such as those in cleaning materials. Minimize contact with sick individuals and practice proper hygiene. Some people find that rinsing the nose with saline can prevent post-nasal drip.
When experiencing a burning sensation in the throat, avoid speaking and get plenty of rest. Drinking fluids helps keep the throat moist, which can soothe the pain. Avoid drinks that have dehydrating effects, such as caffeine and alcohol. Using a humidifier may help. Gargling with saline improves symptoms for people, but irritates others. Lozenges can also provide relief.
When to See a Doctor
While a burning sensation is often a symptom of a minor illness, certain signs indicate a serious issue:
- Fever of 101 F or higher
- Difficulty breathing
- Blood in saliva, mucus, or phlegm
- Persistent symptoms lasting several weeks
- Visible pus in the mouth
- Trouble swallowing
- Difficulty opening the mouth
- Lump in the neck or throat