Causes, Diagnosis, and Home Treatments for Swallowing Pain - K Health

Many people experience discomfort when trying to swallow.

The discomfort is felt either in the upper chest or the throat.

A sore throat may be the first symptom of a cold, an ear or throat infection, heartburn, or even esophageal cancer.  

Find out why swallowing hurts and what you can do about it by reading on.

Finally, if you're having trouble swallowing, you should know when to seek medical attention.  


The tonsils, the passages to the sinuses, the esophagus, and the epiglottis are all parts of the back of the throat.

While the common cold is the most common cause of painful swallowing, inflammation of any of the other structures can have the same effect.  

Coughing fit

The common cold can be caused by over 200 different viruses.

A common cold can be passed from one person to another simply by being in close proximity to them.

Among the symptoms are:

The average duration of a cold is 10–14 days.  

Rough throat

Group A Streptococcus (or just "group A strep") is the bacteria responsible for most cases of strep throat.

The bacteria can easily spread from one person to another through the air via a cough, sneeze, or spoken word.

Among the symptoms are:

  • Fever
  • Suffering from throat pain
  • Throat pain
  • The lymph nodes are swollen.
  • Tonsils that are red and swollen (and may have white spots)


The tonsils are the two bumps, one on each side of the back of your throat.

Lymph nodes contribute to your lymphatic system, which aids in the body's defense against infection and regulates fluid levels.

When your tonsils become inflamed due to a bacterial or viral infection, you have tonsillitis.

Tonsillitis typically affects kids older than 2.

Tonsillitis is contagious because the underlying bacterial or viral infection is contagious.

Preventing the spread requires regular hand washing.

The following are examples of symptoms:

  • Inflamed throat
  • Tonsils that are red and swollen
  • Difficulty in swallowing
  • Lymph node swelling
  • Fever
  • Smelly breath


Candida is a yeast that can cause an infection known as thrush.

As part of your skin's normal flora, Candida exists alongside many other bacteria.

However, some factors alter the normal flora of the mouth, promoting an unchecked Candida overgrowth.  

Thrush is more common in infants and people with compromised immune systems than in otherwise healthy adults.

Among the symptoms are:

  • Contours of the mouth that are white
  • Taste loss
  • Discomfort when chewing and swallowing
  • The mouth feels like it's filled with cotton.
  • Corner of the mouth cracking or turning red


The cartilage of the epiglottis, located at the base of the tongue, closes off the trachea (windpipe) during swallowing, preventing food from going into the lungs.  

When bacteria or viruses infect the epiglottis, a condition known as epiglottitis develops.

Epiglottitis is a life-threatening infection that needs to be treated right away by a medical professional.  

Among the symptoms are:

  • Abnormally high-pitched breathing sounds
  • Blue skin
  • Fever
  • Problems breathing
  • Struggling to swallow
  • Lack of voice quality (hoarseness)

Acid reflux in the stomach (also known as GERD)

When acid from the stomach flows back up into the esophagus, a condition known as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) occurs.

Because of this, you might experience heartburn, a sour taste in your mouth, or both.

Serious complications can arise from GERD if it is not treated.  


Injuries to the throat, while less common than the other causes, can also make swallowing painful.

Too-hot food or drink, for instance, can burn the back of your throat, making swallowing uncomfortable for a couple of days.

The back of your throat can get scratched by sharp foods like chips.

After sustaining one of these injuries, swallowing may hurt for a few days.  

Disease of the ear

Ear infections can be bacterial or viral.

The infection's fluid can drain down the back of your throat via a tube in your middle ear, irritating the area there.

Additional symptoms consist of:

  • Ear pain
  • Fever
  • Disturbed sleep

Ear infections are discussed further here if you're interested.

Cancer of the esophagus

The esophagus is a muscular tube that extends from your throat to your stomach.

Cancer of the esophagus occurs when malignant cells start to multiply in that organ's tissues.

Esophageal cancer risk is increased by both smoking and heavy alcohol consumption.  

Swallowing problems, pain, and weight loss are all symptoms.


Your doctor will look at your medical history and the medicines you are currently taking to make a diagnosis.

They'll want to know how long you've been in pain, and if any other symptoms have appeared.  

They will do a thorough physical examination, checking your eyes, ears, nose, and throat and pressing on your lymph nodes.  

Your doctor may decide to order additional tests if they are deemed necessary.

Verbal customs

A possible cause of a throat infection can be identified with the help of a throat culture.

What medication will be most effective is determined by the results.  

A sterile cotton swab is rubbed on the back of your throat by a medical professional, and then sent off to the lab for analysis.

The test is painless, but you may feel sick for a few seconds.  

Analyzing the blood

Your sore throat may be related to anemia, which can be diagnosed with a complete blood count blood test.  

Swallowed barium

A barium swallow is used to diagnose issues in the pharynx, esophagus, and stomach.

A radiologist or radiology technician will typically conduct this examination.

During a barium swallow test, your throat, esophagus, and associated structures are imaged in real-time via fluoroscopy.  

A hospital gown may be required for the examination.

A liquid containing barium (visible in x-rays) will be given to you, and it will have a chalky flavor.  

You'll be asked to drink the solution while sitting on an x-ray table for pictures.

The radiologist can then see what's happening inside your body during swallowing.  

Do not expose an unborn child to radiation if there is even a remote chance of pregnancy.  

CT scan

Internal body images are captured by x-ray and computer in a computed tomography (CT) scan.  

Wearing a hospital gown and lying on a narrow table that slides inside the scanner may be required for the examination.

After that, specialized x-ray images of your body will be taken by the scanner.  

The scan is painless and takes only a few minutes to complete.

You'll need to maintain complete immobility throughout the scan to ensure clear results.  

Care for Illness

Antibiotics such as penicillin or amoxicillin will be prescribed by your doctor if your infection is bacterial.

Always follow your doctor's advice when taking medication.

Incomplete treatment increases the risk of infection recurrence.  

Antibiotics are not effective against viruses, and using them on a viral infection could make things worse.

Comfort measures for viral infections include bed rest and over-the-counter pain relievers.  

Recurrent tonsillitis and esophageal cancer are two examples of conditions in which surgical removal of the affected tissues is necessary.

Herbal Treatments

Get plenty of rest and try to stick to healthy, soft foods while you're at home.

More suggestions to make you feel at ease

Nonprescription analgesics

Take an over-the-counter pain reliever, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil or Motrin), to help ease your sore throat.

Cough and congestion can be alleviated with over-the-counter cough medicines.

If you have a sore throat and are trying to eat, you can try using a throat spray to dull the pain.  

If your child has a sore throat, consult with their doctor about which over-the-counter treatment options are safe and effective.

Warning: Aspirin should never be given to children.

Lozenges for a sore throat

Sucking on throat lozenges can help stimulate saliva production and relieve dryness and pain in the throat.  

Gargle with salt water

It is recommended to gargle with a solution of one teaspoon of salt in eight ounces of warm water. You can do this thrice daily.  

Hot beverages

Teas and broths, being warm, help keep the throat moist and make swallowing less painful.

Hydration is crucial to the healing process.

Steam Bath

If you suffer from a sore throat, taking a steam shower a few times a day may help relieve the pain.  


If you suffer from a sore throat, using a humidifier in your room can alleviate some of the discomfort.

A sore throat is easier to bear if kept moist.

At night, when you're sleeping, a humidifier can be a real lifesaver.


A sore throat can feel better after drinking tea with honey in it a few times a day.

Honey should never be given to infants younger than a year.  

How to treat a sore throat at home can be found here.


Avoid close contact with sick people.

You should use soap and water to clean your hands after touching a sick person or their belongings.  

When you cough, it's best to use a tissue, your sleeve, or your elbow instead of your hands to avoid spreading germs.

Throw used tissues away in the trash can.

Reduce your exposure to other family members by washing your hands often.  

When You Should See a Doctor

If your sore throat persists after a few days, you should contact your doctor.  

The following warrant immediate medical attention:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Saliva or mucus with visible blood in it
  • Swallowing problems
  • Drooling that is excessive (in kids).
  • Aching, swollen joints
  • A rash

Did you know the K Health app provides access to low-cost primary care?

Download K to quickly assess your health status, learn about potential diagnoses and treatments, and, if necessary, communicate via text with a medical professional. HIPAA-compliant and built on 20 years of clinical data, the K Health app is powered by AI.

If swallowing causes pain, what should I do?

It could be a sign of a viral or bacterial infection if your throat is hurting. Home remedies such as gargling with saltwater and consuming warm liquids sweetened with honey can be helpful. If your sore throat lasts longer than a few days or is accompanied by other symptoms like a fever, you should contact your doctor so that he or she can consider prescribing you medication.

Causes of Swallowing Pain

A sore throat may be the result of a cold, tonsillitis, acid reflux, thrush, or an ear infection. You can get better from the majority of these with the help of over-the-counter (OTC) or prescribed drugs.

Should I be worried when I have pain when swallowing?

Tell a doctor if your sore throat lasts longer than two days, especially if you also have other symptoms like fever or general malaise. If you start drooling, have trouble breathing, or have trouble swallowing, get medical help right away.

All K Health articles are written or reviewed by licensed medical professionals (MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs) and are intended for educational purposes only. No substitute for professional medical advice is intended or implied by this content. Discuss the potential side effects and benefits of any treatment with your doctor.

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