Pharyngitis - viral

Definition
Viral pharyngitis is an inflammation of the pharynx (the part of the throat between the tonsils and the larynx) caused by a virus. It produces a sore throat.

Causes, incidence, and risk factors

Pharyngitis is most often caused by a viral infection, but can also be caused by a bacterial infection. Viral pharyngitis is the most common cause of a sore throat.

When cultures of the throat do not reveal a bacterial cause for the symptoms, a viral pharyngitis is suspected. These illnesses are extremely common.

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

Symptoms

     
  • sore throat  
  • discomfort with swallowing  
  • fever  
  • tender, swollen Lymph nodes in the neck  
  • Joint pain or muscle aches

Signs and tests
Usually a diagnosis is made by examining the throat. A throat swab culture will be negative for bacterial causes of sore throat (such as group A streptococcus).

Treatment

There is no specific treatment for viral pharyngitis. Self-care measures include gargling with warm salt water (one half-teaspoon of salt in a glass of warm water) several times a day, and taking anti-inflammatory drugs or medications such as acetaminophen, that control fever. Excessive use of anti-inflammatory lozenges or sprays may actually make sore throat worse.

It is important to avoid using antibiotics when a sore throat is due to a viral infection, as the antibiotics will not help, and using them in such a way contributes to bacteria becoming resistant to antibiotics.

In some cases of sore throat (e.g., in infectious mononucleosis), the Lymph nodes (glands) in the neck may become extremely swollen, and anti-inflammatory drugs such as prednisone may be needed to ease breathing and swallowing.

Expectations (prognosis)
The symptoms usually resolve themselves within a week to 10 days.

Complications

Complications of viral pharyngitis are extremely uncommon.

Calling your health care provider
Call for an appointment with your health care provider if symptoms persist longer than expected, or if symptoms do not improve with self-care measures. Medical care should always be sought if there is extreme discomfort, or difficulty swallowing or breathing in association with a sore throat.

Prevention
Most cases are not preventable, because the viruses and bacteria that cause sore throats are commonly found in the environment. However, washing hands after contact with an individual with a sore throat, and avoiding kissing, or sharing cups and eating implements with sick individuals, will help prevent transmission.

Johns Hopkins patient information

Last revised: December 3, 2012
by Levon Ter-Markosyan, D.M.D.

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