6 Reasons You Might Have a Painful Neck and Sore Throat

If you're experiencing a sore throat and pain in your neck, there are several culprits that may be to blame.

A sore throat and painful neck is typically caused by either a bacterial or viral infection, which can be treated by your doctor. (Image: Diy13/iStock/GettyImages)

First, a quick anatomy lesson: In addition to your trachea (windpipe) and pharynx (the upper part of your throat, behind your mouth and nasal cavity), your throat includes your voice box, or larynx, and several lymph glands that are an important part of the body's immune system.

When any of these areas become infected or disturbed, the result can be a painful neck and sore throat. In rare cases, a sore throat can be a sign of a serious illness, but most neck and throat pain is bacterial or viral in nature and can be treated at home or with a prescription for antibiotics.

In general, though, it's a good idea to see your doctor if you have neck and throat pain that lasts for more than a day or so.

1. Strep Throat

Strep throat is a throat infection caused by the bacteria streptococcus. As the bacterial infection progresses, those with strep throat may experience:

  • Sore throat
  • Swollen and sore lymph glands in the neck
  • Fever
  • Swollen tonsils
  • White patches in the back of the throat

According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, children may also experience abdominal pain, vomiting and rash.

Strep throat can be successfully treated with a series of oral antibiotics prescribed by your doctor. It is important to take all of the prescribed medication to ensure the infection has completely gone away.

Keep in mind that those with strep throat are considered contagious until an antibiotic has been taken for at least 24 hours.

2. Tonsillitis

The tonsils are large lymph nodes in the back of the neck that help prevent bacteria and other potentially harmful organisms from entering the body. Occasionally, the tonsils can become so overwhelmed with organisms that they become inflamed. This condition is referred to as tonsillitis.

Symptoms of tonsillitis include:

  • Severe sore throat
  • Soreness of the neck and jaw
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Ear pain
  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Headache
  • Voice changes

MedlinePlus notes that the sore throat associated with tonsillitis usually lasts at least 48 hours and is extremely severe.

"Tonsillitis can be caused by viral or bacterial infections and it usually gets better without antibiotics," explains Allan Rosenbaum, MD, an otolaryngologist at the University of Tennessee Medical Center.

In general, treating tonsillitis with antibiotics isn't recommended unless it's due to streptococcus. The only treatment is supportive, which means acetaminophen, plenty of rest, warm tea with honey and other soothing liquids, says Dr. Rosenbaum.

3. Swollen Lymph Nodes

Many lymph nodes are located on either side of the neck — and when they swell, you'll likely feel pain and tenderness in the neck and throat.

The Mayo Clinic notes that a runny nose and fever may also accompany this discomfort.

Lymph nodes get swollen for many reasons, usually in response to an infection. "Any infection can cause a local lymph node to get enlarged and some illnesses like infectious mononucleosis can cause lymph nodes to get enlarged all over," explains Dr. Rosenbaum.

Much less commonly, neck and throat pain can turn out to be lymphoma, which is a type of cancer that can start in lymph nodes (other cancers can metastasize or spread to the lymph nodes as well).

4. Peritonsillar abscess

Another cause of neck and throat pain is a peritonsillar abscess, which is a tonsil infection that spreads to the tissues surrounding the tonsil.

In kids, this condition can often be treated with antibiotics, frequently administered in IV form, notes Dr. Rosenbaum, while in adults it usually requires a surgical procedure to drain the collection of pus or to remove the tonsils.

5. GERD

Gastroesophageal reflux might make you think of babies who spit up frequently, but GERD, or gastroesophageal reflux disease, is a more chronic, long-term digestive issue, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.

GERD is characterized by an acidic taste and burning sensation in the back of your throat.

"GERD is when gastric (stomach) contents enter the esophagus or further up (into the throat) and the symptoms it can cause depend on which tissues are irritated by the stomach's contents," says Dr. Rosenbaum.

If the esophagus is irritated, it often causes heartburn. If GERD moves higher, it can cause throat symptoms and in severe cases it can be the source of pain in the ears or nose.

6. Throat Cancer

Throat cancer is the term for the development of cancerous tumors in the pharynx, larynx or tonsils and is fairly common in the U.S., with approximately 50,000 new cases diagnosed each year, reports Dr. Rosenbaum.

Those who smoke or consume alcohol excessively are at an increased risk of developing throat cancer, according to the MayoClinic.

Symptoms of throat cancer may include:

  • Sore throat
  • Painful neck
  • Chronic cough
  • Voice changes
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Ear pain
  • Weight loss

Treatment for throat cancer depends on several factors, including the location of the cancer, stage of the cancer, overall health and personal preferences. Treatment options include radiation therapy, surgery, chemotherapy and targeted drug therapy.

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