An itchy throat refers to an irritated, scratchy and sometimes even painful feeling in the throat. It is usually associated with difficulty in swallowing and coughing. As with pain, the itchy sensation may be due to inflammation as is seen with conditions such as a throat infection. Irritants and allergens in the air, food or water may also trigger a scratch feeling in the throat. In order to relieve the itching, the underlying cause needs to be correctly identified and treated.
Other Symptoms with Itchy Throat
An itchy throat is a symptom that may be accompanied by a variety of other symptoms. The most common of these symptoms are:
- Pain and irritation in the throat
- Increased mucus secretion
- Difficulty in swallowing food and water
- Runny nose
- Itchy or red eyes
- Difficulty in speaking
The exact combination and intensity of the symptoms depends on the cause of the itchy throat.
What causes an itchy throat?
The throat has receptors that can detect temperature, perceive pain and respond to irritants that comes into contact with it. An itchy throat is usually due to the activation of these irritant receptors. It may be an early sign of tissue damage and inflammation. If the cause is not removed, the condition may progress further and pain may then arise thereafter. There are various possible causes for this throat irritation that may lead to an itchy feeling.
Dryness of Throat
Dry throat is a common occurrence in cold weather conditions. It is usually accompanied by other symptoms such as dryness of the skin, mouth and eyes. Decreased mucus production and dryness of throat can also be caused by lack of enough fluid consumption (dehydration), preferential breathing through mouth, inflammation, underactive salivary glands, smoking, flu, consumption of caffeine and alcohol, and autoimmune disorders such as the Sjogren syndrome. Many classes of medicines such as anti-depressants, anti-histamines, atropine, barbiturates, opium, diuretics, and asthma sprays also cause dry and itchy throat symptoms.
Prolonged talking, yelling or singing often results in dry mouth and throat. This usually goes away after a few days of vocal rest.
Foreign Objects Lodged in the Throat
Sometimes, itchy and painful throat can result if foreign objects such as tiny fish bones, buttons, glass etc. lodge themselves in the throat (esp. in a pocket above the epiglottis). This is usually removed by coughing out the object or swallowing it.
Mechanical and Chemical Irritants
Itchy throat is also a common result of inhalation of air pollutants such as smoke, factory fumes, sulfur dioxide, certain laboratory chemicals, and household cleaners. Ingestion of irritant substances such as pungent spices and hot liquids can also lead to throat irritation.
Infections resulting from certain bacteria, viruses and fungi lead to itchy throat symptoms that progressively become worse and require medical attention. Viral infections such as flu (caused by influenza virus), common cold (caused by rhinovirus), mumps, chicken pox, and infectious mononucleosis (kissing disease) also result in itchy throat. These pathogens also cause infections of the respiratory tract.
Common bacterial infections causing itchy throat include Hemophilus influenzae and Streptococcus pneumoniae. Persistent and chronic bacterial infections can cause chronic pharyngitis. In case of patients with suppressed immune systems (e.g. in HIV/AIDS patients, diabetics, cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy), the Candida fungus might overgrow in the mouth and the throat resulting in a condition known as oral thrush.
Cystic fibrosis also affects the throat in addition to the lungs. This genetic disorder is characterized by excessive secretion of dense mucus that gets lodged in the respiratory pathways and causes infections. Lung infections and persistent coughing are common symptoms of this condition.
Systemic connective tissue disorders such as Sjorgen syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis, systemic lupus erythematosus, and systemic sclerosis also cause itchy throat symptoms.
Both respiratory and food allergies cause itchy throat in addition to other symptoms such as swelling of face, sneezing, tingling lips, hives, difficulty in breathing, runny nose and red eyes.
Problems within tissues of the neck could also result in itchy throat. Examples include tumors, fibrous tissue formation after surgical procedure, swollen lymph nodes and injury to the tissues of the neck.
Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)
This condition is characterized by a backflow of the stomach acid into the esophagus, which is not equipped to handle such a low pH. The stomach acid causes irritation and injury to the throat, symptoms commonly referred to as “heartburn”.
What is the treatment for itchy throat?
Treatment strategies for an itchy throat are aimed at relieving both the symptoms and the underlying cause that precipitated the itchiness. In some cases, the itchiness is temporary and goes away on its own. Following are some of the commonly prescribed treatments for more persistent itchy throat symptoms:
- Relief for dry and itchy throat can be provided by consumption of water or oral rehydrating solutions.. These agents overcome dryness and protect the mucus membrane in the throat by making a thin film over it. Breathing through the nose instead of the mouth could also help provide temporary relief from an itchy throat.
- Painkillers are sometimes prescribed if the persistent itchy throat is accompanied by pain as well.
- In autoimmune diseases like the Sjogren syndrome, the mucus glands are destroyed by the body’s own immune reaction, leading to dry and itchy throat. In these cases, rinses and artificial saliva are prescribed.
- Antibiotics are the appropriate line of treatment in cases of bacterial and fungal infections that result in itchy and painful throat. For example, treatment with anti-fungal pills containing nystatin is given in case of fungal throat infections. Gargling with warm salt water is also useful in itchy throat caused during colds/flu.
- Anti-allergic medicines are given in cases where allergies cause itchy throat in addition to other symptoms. In these cases, it is imperative to know what triggers the allergic reaction in order to avoid further exposure to the allergen.
- Drugs that treat excessive acidity (such as omeprazole, cimetidine, ranitidine) are prescribed in cases where gastro-esophageal reflux is found to be the cause of the throat itch and discomfort.