Waking up with a sore throat can be a sign that you've got a cold coming on. But that's not always the case. There are plenty of possible sore or dry throat causes that have nothing to do with being sick.
Often the culprit is post-nasal drip — thick, sticky mucus from the sinuses that drips down the back of the throat. It can be triggered by a number of different conditions, and may contain inflammatory components including white blood cells or bacteria that can irritate the throat, explains Omid Mehdizadeh, MD, an otolaryngologist and laryngologist at Providence St. John's Health Center in Santa Monica, California.
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There are other possible offenders too. Here are some of the most common reasons why you're waking up with a sore throat and how to soothe the scratchiness. Plus, learn when throat discomfort warrants a call to the doctor.
1. You've Got Allergies
Though itching and sneezing might be the first symptoms you think of, seasonal allergies can also leave you with a sore, scratchy throat. Pollen, dust, mold or dander can trigger inflammation in the airways, causing throat discomfort, Dr. Mehdizadeh says.
Fix it: Pinpointing your allergy triggers and taking steps to reduce your exposure is a must for managing your symptoms, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (ACAAI). Over-the-counter or prescription medications like antihistamines and some natural remedies can also provide relief.
2. It's an Environmental Irritant
You don't have to have allergies for stuff floating around in the air to give you a sore throat. Irritants like fumes or dust can also cause discomfort.
"They can incite an immunologic reaction in the nose and throat, which typically results in inflammation and increased mucus production," Dr. Mehdizadeh explains.
Fix it: Again, steering clear of the offending substances is your best strategy. Using an air filter can help outdoor gunk in the air from making its way into your home, and you can try other methods to improve indoor air quality.
If mold is an issue, run a dehumidifier to keep your indoor humidity below 50 percent, recommends the Cleveland Clinic.
3. It's Cold, Dry Air
Very chilly or parched conditions can trigger the body to ramp up mucus production in an attempt to keep your airways moist, Dr. Mehdizadeh says. And when that extra mucus starts to make its way down your throat, things can start to get uncomfortable. (It can make you stuffy and congested, too.)
Fix it: Add some moisture back into the air by running a humidifier. No need to turn your space into a steam bath, which can set the stage for mold. Just aim to keep your home's humidity level between 30 and 50 percent, the Cleveland Clinic recommends.
4. You Have Acid Reflux
Reflux can irritate your throat and cause soreness, hoarseness or a dry cough, according to the Cleveland Clinic. And because it tends to be worse at night, you might be more likely to notice the throat discomfort when you wake up in the morning.
Fix it: Managing your acid reflux will help ease your throat pain. Avoid foods that trigger your heartburn and try not to eat within three hours before going to bed.
When you do turn in for the night, elevate your head with an extra pillow, the Mayo Clinic recommends. And finally, ask your doctor about taking a heartburn medication if lifestyle changes aren't enough.
5. It's a Vocal Cord Injury
Gave a big speech or spent hours singing along at a concert? Using your voice for too long or too loudly can strain your vocal cords and temporarily cause them to become swollen and irritated, Dr. Mehdizadeh says. As a result, you might sound hoarse (or lose your voice completely) and have some throat pain.
Fix it: Give your vocal cords some TLC to help them heal.
"Voice rest, hydration, humidification, neck massage and avoiding throat clearing are the most effective ways to ease the discomfort and expedite the return of your voice," Dr. Mehdizadeh says.
6. You Have a Deviated Septum
Sometimes deviated septums — when the cartilage that separates the nostrils is pushed to one side — go completely unnoticed. But other times they can cause congestion and increased mucus production, which could potentially irritate your throat, Dr. Mehdizadeh says.
Deviated septums can also cause frequent headaches or facial pain, noisy breathing or nosebleeds, per the Cleveland Clinic.
Fix it: Tell your doctor if you think you have a deviated septum. If the condition is causing recurrent sinus and mucus problems, your doctor can refer you to an otolaryngologist to discuss possible treatment options.
7. Serious Illnesses
In rare cases, a persistent sore throat could be the sign of serious health problems such as throat cancer or HIV. Usually these problems are accompanied by other symptoms like trouble swallowing, a lump in the neck, bloody mucus or flu-like symptoms, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Fix it: See your doctor to discuss your symptoms. Treatment will depend on your diagnosis.
How to Soothe a Sore Throat
If it's not caused by a cold, a dry throat in the morning can usually be managed by addressing the underlying cause. But when you wake up and need sore throat relief ASAP, these steps can help:
- Drink something warm. Warm liquids like tea with honey or broth can hydrate your throat and soothe the irritation.
- Or try a cold treat. Popsicles or ice cream can have a numbing effect and take down some of the inflammation, notes the American Academy of Family Physicians.
- Saltwater gargle. Mix 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon of table salt into 4 to 8 ounces of warm water, recommends the Mayo Clinic. Gargle for a few seconds, then spit.
- Suck on a lozenge or hard candy. Both can help coat and soothe your throat. Consider cough drops that contain the active ingredient cepacol, Dr. Mehdizadeh says.
- Add some steam. If you don't have a humidifier, try running a hot shower with the door shut for a few minutes, the Mayo Clinic recommends.
When to Call the Doctor for a Sore Throat
A mild sore throat isn't usually cause for concern, and at-home measures should help you feel better within a few days. But if the throat discomfort lasts for more than five days, call your doctor, Dr. Mehdizadeh recommends.
The Mayo Clinic notes that you should also seek medical attention if your sore throat is accompanied by other symptoms like:
- A rash
- Joint pain
- A fever higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit
- Bloody mucus
- Facial swelling
- A lump in the neck or throat
- Trouble breathing
- American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology: "Seasonal Allergies"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Environmental Management for Allergies"
- Cleveland Clinic: "GERD (Chronic Acid Reflux)"
- Cleveland Clinic: "How You Can Tell If You Need a Humidifier"
- Mayo Clinic: "Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Deviated Septum"
- Mayo Clinic: "Sore Throat"
- American Academy of Family Physicians: "Sore Throat"
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.