We've all experienced an occasional throat tickle. While a little annoying and uncomfortable, usually the scratchiness soon subsides on its own.
But sometimes a persistent prickliness in your throat can point to an underlying health problem.
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Here, Erich P. Voigt, MD, associate professor at the department of otolaryngology-head and neck surgery at NYU Langone and host of The Otolaryngology Show on Sirius XM Doctor Radio, shares the common causes of an inflamed pharynx and what you can do to improve the itchiness.
1. You Have Seasonal Allergies
Seasonal allergies are a likely instigator of itchy throat symptoms.
When you're allergic to something, say pollen, your body reacts by releasing a chemical called histamine, resulting in scratchy eyes, a stuffy, runny and/or sneezy nose and an itchy throat, Dr. Voigt says.
And unfortunately for allergy sufferers, each season has its own allergens that may initiate the itch:
- Spring. "Spring brings many types of pollens as the trees and plants and flowers pollinate," Dr. Voigt says.
- Summer. During the warmer weather, grass pollens permeate the air, Dr. Voigt says.
- Fall. "Fall will bring in lots of molds as the tree leaves fall to the ground and trap water under them and degrade," Dr. Voigt says.
- Winter. "Wintertime is the season of the indoor allergens as people spend more time indoors exposed to their pets, dust, down comforters and wool sweaters and indoor pests such as cockroaches and mice," Dr. Voigt says.
Fix it: The best defense against an itchy throat (and other symptoms) is to avoid the allergens. “However, this is not always possible because the particles are microscopic and in the air,” Dr. Voigt says.
“Antihistamines [in the form of oral medication or nasal sprays] are a good first-line therapy to prevent the [allergic] reaction,” Dr. Voigt says. For long-term management, you might even consider allergy immunotherapy, i.e., "allergy shots."
Most importantly, don’t just ignore your itchy throat or grin and bear it. “An untreated or severe allergy can also cause swelling in the lungs or allergic asthma, and people with this may need to use steroid inhalers and bronchodilators,” Dr. Voigt explains.
2. You Have Food Allergies
Like seasonal allergies, you can also have an allergic reaction to food. Indeed, "an itchy throat may be the first indication of a [food] allergy," Dr. Voigt says.
When your body encounters an allergen, in this case, a certain food, it triggers an immune response. Signs of a food allergy may include, per the U.S. Drug and Food Administration (FDA):
- Flushed skin or rash
- Tingling or itchy sensation in the mouth
- Face, tongue or lip swelling
- Vomiting and/or diarrhea
- Abdominal cramps
- Coughing or wheezing
- Dizziness and/or lightheadedness
- Swelling of the throat and vocal cords
- Difficulty breathing
- Loss of consciousness
Left untreated, a food allergy can be very dangerous. “A food allergy can trigger an extreme reaction called anaphylaxis, and this can be deadly,” Dr. Voigt says.
If you experience any of the above symptoms, stop eating the food immediately and seek medical attention. For these potentially life-threatening situations, you may be prescribed an emergency medication such as an EpiPen, an injection of epinephrine used to treat very serious allergic reactions.
Fix it: “If a person senses an itchy throat after eating an item, they should avoid that food and see an allergist for testing [right away],” Dr. Voigt says.
The major food allergens include milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, soybeans and sesame seeds, according to the FDA.
If you have a known food allergy, make sure to always check the ingredients on foods you eat and carry an EpiPen, Dr. Voigt says.
3. You’re Inhaling Pollutants or Irritants
"Poor air quality, [i.e., air that is] filled with dust, smoke, smog or other irritants, can cause an itchy throat," Dr. Voigt says.
While outdoor air pollution is a big problem for your pulmonary health, you're not safe from irritants when indoors either. In fact, research has found that the concentration of many air pollutants may be fivefold (and sometimes, even 100 times) greater indoors, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR).
And an itchy throat may be just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to possible health consequences of inhaling indoor air pollutants. Over time, exposure to poor indoor air quality can trigger or contribute to the development of infections, lung cancer and chronic lung diseases like asthma, per the American Lung Association (ALA).
Fix it: “Obviously, you want to avoid air like this, so if you find yourself in poor air quality, you should try to get to an area with clean fresh air,” Dr. Voigt says. “If that is not possible, wearing a respirator to filter the air is helpful, as well as wearing a mask.”
But what about indoor air quality in your home? To reduce irritants and pollutants inside your house, keep your space well-ventilated (but only crack open windows if the outdoor air quality is good) and invest in an air cleaner with a HEPA filter, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Other helpful tips for keeping your indoor air fresh, per the ALA:
- Don’t smoke inside your domicile since smoke contains toxic and carcinogenic chemicals that diminish indoor air quality
- Use a dehumidifier to keep humidity levels in check as high humidity encourages the growth of mold and other pollutants
- Keep food stored away, cover trash and use baits to prevent pests like mice and cockroaches, which may produce allergens that can become airborne
- Skip scented candles, which involve combustion and create smoke particles that contribute to poor air quality
- Use nontoxic cleaning and household products that are less likely to irritate your throat and lungs
4. You Have a Common Cold
A common cold or infection could be the source of your scratchy throat.
"Viruses and bacteria can infect the eyes, nose and throat resulting in an itchy throat," Dr. Voigt says. But more often, these infections produce a painful feeing in your pharynx (i.e., a sore throat), he says.
In addition to a prickly (or painful) sensation in your throat, "infections are also associated with additional symptoms of body aches, fever, cough and excess mucous," Dr. Voigt says. These accompanying signs of sickness are a surefire way to distinguish between a common cold and allergies.
Fix it: “A person suffering with these symptoms should seek out medical care and have testing done for viruses and bacteria,” Dr. Voigt says.
“The treatment, in general, includes supportive therapy such as hydration, antipyretics [i.e., medicines used to reduce fever], anti-inflammatory medications and antiviral or antibiotic therapy depending on the culture results,” he says.
5. You Have Acid Reflux
Acid reflux can aggravate your throat and initiate an itchy feeling in your pharynx.
Acid reflux occurs when stomach material (food and gastric acid and enzymes) travels up the esophagus from the stomach into the throat, Dr. Voigt says. A chronic form of reflux, "gastroesophageal reflux [GERD] can cause the sense of throat irritation, throat clearing, throat itch and throat burning," he says.
In addition, GERD symptoms include heartburn, regurgitation of food or sour liquid and upper abdominal or chest pain, according to the Mayo Clinic.
However, reflux can also be silent, meaning it doesn't involve the other telltale symptoms of GERD, Dr. Voigt says. Known as silent reflux, laryngopharyngeal reflux (LPR) can result in throat issues including the following, per the Cleveland Clinic:
- Sore throat
- Mild hoarseness
- Sensation of a lump in the throat
- The need to clear the throat
- The sensation of mucus sticking in the throat and/or post-nasal drip
- Chronic (long-term) cough
- Difficulty swallowing
- Red, swollen or irritated larynx (voice box)
Fix it: Certain lifestyle modifications may help to mitigate or minimize acid reflux. For example, “avoiding large meals, spicy or acidic foods, caffeine as well as late night eating can limit reflux,” Dr. Voigt says.
If these lifestyle changes don’t do the trick to temper your symptoms, speak with your doctor. “There are medications to decrease stomach acid such as anti-acids, antihistamines and proton pump inhibitors,” Dr. Voigt says.
What’s more, people dealing with obesity are more prone to GERD problems, so discussing healthy weight-loss options with your healthcare provider may also be helpful to hinder recurrent reflux.
6. You’re a Smoker
Smoking can produce a persistent prickly feeling in your throat. And these itchy effects aren't limited to solely smoking cigarettes. "Vaping, hookah and any activity that involves inhaling substances may cause throat symptoms," Dr. Voigt says.
That's because smoking of any kind can instigate irritation and inflammation. Factors such as heat (from the combustion of lighting a cigarette) and particles of smoke may damage the tissues of the throat, Dr. Voigt says.
Not to mention that cigarettes contain carcinogens and chemical irritants that can also dehydrate the mucous membranes in the pharynx, resulting in an itchy throat, according to the World Allergy Organization.
Fix it: The solution is simple: Kick the habit. Still, we know quitting can be very challenging. If you need help, the ALA's Freedom From Smoking program is a great place to start.
7. It’s a Side Effect of Your Medication
Throat irritation and swelling are somewhat typical potential side effects of certain drugs, Dr. Voigt says.
For example, one of the consequences of taking ACE (angiotensin-converting enzyme) inhibitors and angiotensin receptor blockers — both are types of medications prescribed to treat high blood pressure — is a hacking cough, according to AARP. And this chronic coughing can contribute to an irritated, itchy throat.
Fix it: “If a person develops throat symptoms after starting a new medication, they should call their healthcare provider and discuss this,” Dr. Voigt says. Your doctor may lower your dosage or prescribe you another drug.
When Should You See a Doctor for an Itchy Throat?
"Whenever there is something irritating the body, causing discomfort and/or persisting despite avoidance of the irritant," it's always smart to seek medical evaluation and treatment, Dr. Voigt says.
Once your doctor can properly assess, diagnose and treat the underlying issue, your throat symptoms should subside.
Try These Over-the-Counter Remedies to Relieve an Itchy, Irritated Throat
- Ricola Sugar Free Lemon Mint Herbal Cough Suppressant Throat Drops, $13.99 at Amazon.com
- Vicks VapoCOOL Sore Throat Spray, $14.90 at Amazon.com
- Halls Cough Drops, $11.35 for a 3-pack at Amazon.com
- Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry: “What Are Possible Sources of Indoor Air Pollution?”
- American Lung Association: “Indoor Air Pollutants and Health”
- Environmental Protection Agency: “Improving Indoor Air Quality”
- American Lung Association: “Protecting Yourself from Air Pollution at Home”
- Mayo Clinic: “Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)”
- Cleveland Clinic: “Laryngopharyngeal Reflux (LPR)”
- World Allergy Organization: “Constant Itchy Throat with Cough”
- AARP:” Do You Have a Cough That Won't Go Away?”
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.