7 Common Reasons Why It Hurts To Swallow

2012-11-16 | |
Last updated: 2020-09-06
Reasons it hurts to swallow

When it comes to illness, one of the most common symptoms that we will experience is the sore throat. We all know the feeling of that oncoming cold with the throat irritation and the swollen glands that serve to make swallowing painful.

Of course, a cold is by no means the only reason for a sore throat. In many situations, we will feel the pain of swallowing without ever developing a cold. That is because there so many causes that that can lead to pain when we swallow.

How Common Is It To Experience Pain When Swallowing?

Not surprisingly, pain when swallowing is extremely common. According to research published in the journal of Clinical Infectious Diseases in September 2012, approximately 15 million people in the US go to their doctor each year due to a sore throat. Far more will live with a sore throat without ever going to the doctor or even being diagnosed.

This happens because the discomfort and pain experienced when swallowing is simply considered normal and in the majority of situations, the symptoms go away on their own.

In some situations, however, symptoms can be more painful than expected or can last longer than normal. In these situations, it is a good idea to visit the doctor as some causes of sore throats can be more serious. Because there can be so many reasons that it can hurt to swallow, it is important to be aware of those that are most common.

What Are Some Common Reasons Why It May Hurt To Swallow?

The most common reason that it can hurt to swallow is because of an infection. Whether a virus, fungus, or bacteria causes it, the inflammation that results from an infection will frequently make swallowing painful. And because we swallow several times per minute when we are awake, pain when swallowing is something we will quickly notice.

That said, there are also numerous other reasons why the throat can be sore when swallowing.

1. Viral Infections Of The Saliva Glands Can Make It Hurt To Swallow

Of the causes of throat infection, viral infections are the most common. While a cold is the most recognized type of viral infection, other viral infections can also develop in the throat and mouth leading to throat pain.

One example is when a viral infection develops in the saliva glands. When this type of infection occurs, the glands will become swollen and tender making swallowing quite uncomfortable, but the feeling will not be the same pain as from a cold.

Another example of a virus that can lead to throat pain is Mononucleosis or mono for short. It is also sometimes called the “kissing disease”. Unlike many other viral infections that will last for a few weeks at most, a person can feel the effects of mono for months. Fortunately, the throat pain will usually stop more rapidly.

Most forms of viral infection will not linger and the pain they cause will fade within a few weeks. Still, many people will go to their doctor asking for antibiotics, hoping for a more rapid recovery.

Unfortunately, antibiotics have no effect on viruses as they only combat bacterial infection. In the case of some viral infections such as mono, antibiotics can even make the symptoms worse. This makes it all the more important to know whether your infection is cause by a virus or something else. Using some antibiotics that were not previously finished is a bad idea.

2. Throat Pain And Uncomfortable Swallowing From Bacterial Infections

Although less common than viral infections, bacterial infections can also happen. In many cases, these types of infections are more severe and some may require antibiotics to speed recovery. However, antibiotics are not always required as many people who are generally healthy can overcome such infections on their own.

Painful Swallowing Because of Strep Throat

One somewhat common example of bacterial infection is the result of the streptococcus bacteria. This bacterial infection is a frequent cause of painful swallowing among children and adults with weakened immune systems. The contagious condition commonly called strep throat occurs when this type of bacteria takes over in the throat. When this happens, the throat and tonsils can become red and swollen making swallowing uncomfortable or painful.

Though many people will describe a sore throat as being the result of strep throat, in most cases what people actually have is a more common viral infection.

Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs) And Pain When Swallowing

Other forms of bacterial infection that we might not immediately associate with pain when swallowing are some of the STDs. One of these is the all too common chlamydia bacteria. This bacteria infects the mouth and throat as a result of oral sex. Similarly, Gonorrhea, another common bacterial infection, can also infect the throat after oral sex. Lastly, throat pain that affects swallowing can also develop as a result of infection by syphilis bacteria.

While infections from these bacteria can cause a sore throat, it is important to realize that this is not always the case.

3. Fungal Infection Making It Hurt To Swallow

As the last type of infection to consider, fungal infections of the mouth are the most common. They usually occur because a person has a weakened immune system. For some people, changes in moisture or the environment in the mouth can then lead to excess growth of the fungus that normally live there.

One example of this is the condition called thrush in which the Candida fungus grows out of control. This results in many small, painful sores in the mouth and throat. Often described as a yeast infection, the fungus that grows in the throat is the same as seen in yeast infections of the vagina.

As a consequence of having a number of small open sores, swallowing can become painful.

4. Pain When Swallowing Due To Canker Sores

Aside from the many forms of infection that can lead to throat pain when swallowing another reason for the pain is as a result of canker sores and ulcers in the throat. Though canker sore are most commonly experienced around the teeth and gums, they can also occur in the back and top areas of the throat where it can be difficult to see them.

Canker sores often take a few weeks to heal. Unfortunately, those that develop in the throat can take longer to heal. The movement of the tongue and the passage of food over the canker sore can make it very difficult for these canker sores to heal. This leads to the slow recovery period.

5. Medications Causing A Sore Throat

Another cause of sore throats not related to infection is from the use of medications. Although we would more likely think of medications as the treatment for a sore throat, several different medications can actually make swallowing painful. The reason for this is that these drugs can lead to reduced amounts of saliva in the mouth.

Especially over night the medications cause the lining of the mouth and throat to become dry and irritated. Several medications for treating allergies and depression can result in dry mouth and a subsequent sore throat, especially in the morning.

6. Swallowing Pain Caused By Stomach Acid In the Throat

Amongst people who suffer problems with heart burn or acid reflux, it can also hurt to swallow especially when the condition is poorly managed. Even if a person does not feel heartburn, acid traveling from the stomach up to the mouth will irritate and damage the throat and vocal chords.

This will lead to inflammation that can make swallowing both difficult and painful. If the acid reflux remains untreated, the acid can also burn the lining of the throat leading to pain. When this happens, it can take quite a while for the throat to heal meaning that pain will persist.

7. Pain When Swallowing Following Cancer Therapy

One last reason to mention as to why it can hurt to swallow comes as a result of cancer treatment, something that is becoming increasingly common amongst the many Baby Boomers who are now seniors. Both radiation and chemotherapy can lead to a condition known as mucositis in which the soft tissues along the digestive tract, including the mouth and throat can become inflamed and develop sores.

According to statistics published by the American Cancer Society in 2004, as many as 15% of cancer patients will develop the condition. Among patients with head and neck cancers, 80% will develop the condition.

The pain and discomfort that arises is significant enough that between 1 and 6 and 1 in 3 people who develop mucositis will require hospitalization to manage the pain.


A sore throat is one of the most common types of symptom to experience. With all the different possible causes, the reason that most of us will experience such pain is as a result of viral infections such as colds. Still. there are a great number of causes for swallowing to be painful. Because of this, it is important that when swallowing hurts and the pain is abnormal or lasts more than a few weeks that we seek medical care. Doing so reduces the risks that a sore throat turns into something worse.

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Category: General Health, Health Risks, Symptom Information

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  1. Ervinesz says:

    I’ve never heard of Zilactin-B so I can’t advise you on that. I get canker sores too and they last as long as they last. My doctor told me to get Oil of Clove. I use that and it really numbs the sores. It’s cheap and works very well. I do have to keep applying it though. Sometimes it will sting when you first put it on but it’s well worth it as I’m sure you know.