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Pain When Swallowing? What to do if it Hurts to Swallow

Updated: Jan 8



Swallowing is a fundamental aspect of our daily lives, typically a seamless and painless process. However, when the simple act of swallowing becomes accompanied by pain, it can be both concerning and uncomfortable.


Woman touching her throat in pain
Science Photo Library

Odynophagia is a medical term that refers to the sensation of pain or discomfort experienced while swallowing. This condition can affect people of all ages and may vary in severity from mild irritation to intense pain. Odynophagia is distinct from dysphagia, which involves difficulty swallowing, as it specifically pertains to the presence of pain during the act of swallowing.



Type of Pain

Throat pain can manifest in various ways, and the sensation may differ based on the underlying cause of the pain. Providing a detailed description of the nature of your pain to your physician can aid in pinpointing the underlying cause of your discomfort. Here are some common descriptions of throat pain:


  • Soreness: This is a general discomfort or pain in the throat, often described as a raw or scratchy feeling. It can be aggravated by swallowing, talking, or coughing.

  • Burning: Some people may experience a burning sensation in their throat, which can be associated with acid reflux or irritation from certain substances.

  • Stinging or Sharp Pain: Throat pain may feel sharp or stinging, especially when swallowing. This can be caused by inflammation, infection, or injury.

  • Dryness or Itchiness: This sensation is often associated with conditions like allergies or exposure to irritants.

  • Tightness: Throat tightness can be described as a feeling of constriction or pressure in the throat. It may be associated with stress, anxiety, or certain medical conditions.

  • Achy or Dull Pain: Throat pain can also be described as a dull, achy discomfort. This type of pain might be present constantly or worsen with specific actions like swallowing.

  • Radiating Pain: Throat pain might radiate to the ears or jaw, especially if the pain is related to conditions like tonsillitis or an ear infection.

  • Difficulty Swallowing: Throat pain can be accompanied by difficulty swallowing (dysphagia), making it uncomfortable or painful to eat or drink.



Potential Causes

Identifying the specific cause of your pain is crucial for effective treatment and relief from this uncomfortable symptom. The following may cause pain when swallowing:


  1. Infections: Common culprits include:

  2. Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD): Chronic acid reflux can cause irritation and inflammation of the esophagus

  3. Inflammatory Conditions: Inflammatory disorders affecting the esophagus, such as eosinophilic esophagitis

  4. Esophageal Stricture: Narrowing of the esophagus, often caused by scar tissue from chronic inflammation or other factors

  5. Foreign Bodies in the throat

  6. Medication Side Effects

  7. Muscle Disorders or Esophageal Spasms

  8. Post-surgical Complications



Treatment

Diagnosing the underlying cause of odynophagia often involves a thorough medical history, physical examination, and sometimes imaging studies, endoscopy, or laboratory tests. The treatment approach depends on the specific cause:


  1. Infections: Antiviral, antibacterial, or antifungal medications may be prescribed based on the identified pathogen.

  2. GERD: Lifestyle modifications, dietary changes, and medications to reduce acid production or improve esophageal motility may be recommended.

  3. Inflammatory Conditions: Anti-inflammatory medications or dietary changes may be prescribed to manage inflammation.

  4. Esophageal Stricture: Treatment may involve dilation procedures to widen the narrowed esophagus.

  5. Foreign Bodies: Removal of the foreign object is essential to relieving odynophagia.

  6. Medication Side Effects: Adjusting or discontinuing medications that may be contributing to the symptoms.

  7. Muscle Disorders: Medications to relax or regulate esophageal muscle contractions may be prescribed.



Home Remedies


The best way to get relief from pain when swallowing is to consult with a doctor or an Ear, Nose, and Throat Specialist. In the meantime, here are some general tips that may help to ease your discomfort:


  • Over-the-Counter Pain Relievers: Non-prescription pain relievers like acetaminophen or ibuprofen, throat sprays, or antacids (in the case of pain stemming from acid reflux) can help reduce pain and inflammation.

  • Warm liquids: Sipping warm liquids like broth, tea, or warm water can soothe the throat and make swallowing easier.

  • Honey: A spoonful of honey can coat the throat and provide some temporary relief.

  • Suck on lozenges: Sucking on lozenges or throat drops can help to stimulate saliva production, which can lubricate the throat and make swallowing easier.

  • Gargle with salt water: Gargling with warm salt water can help to reduce inflammation and discomfort in the throat.

  • Avoid irritants: Avoid spicy, acidic, or greasy foods and beverages, as they can irritate the throat further.


Remember, do not try to force swallowing. If something is causing you pain, don't try to force it down. This could make the situation worse. If these remedies prove ineffective, it is advisable to consult with your doctor or an otolaryngologist. They can identify the underlying cause of your condition and provide tailored assistance to alleviate your pain effectively.



When To Seek Help For Pain When Swallowing


Pain when swallowing is a symptom that should not be ignored. Seek medical attention if:


  • The pain is severe or persistent.

  • You have difficulty swallowing or breathing.

  • You experience fever, chills, or swollen glands.

  • You have blood in your saliva or vomit.

  • The pain worsens or doesn't improve with home remedies within a few days.


Consulting with a a physician or an Ear, Nose, and Throat specialist is the best course of action as they can conduct a thorough examination, take your medical history into account, and recommend appropriate diagnostic tests to identify the cause of the pain and develop an effective treatment plan. Early intervention can often lead to better outcomes and resolution of symptoms.



 


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Dr. David Eleff, Otolaryngologist/Ear, Nose, and Throat Specialist at ENT Family in Hollywood, Florida.

This article has been medically reviewed by  otolaryngologist, David Eleff, M.D.

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3911 Hollywood Blvd, Suite 201, Hollywood, FL

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