Causes and Treatments for a Sore Throat on One Side

It’s likely that you have experienced a sore throat on one side at least once in your lifetime. This is a common symptom among children and adults and doesn’t always lead to a visit with your healthcare provider.

Most sore throats are caused by viruses or bacteria and can be managed at home. In some cases, however, an unusual cause may lead to your sore throat and call for more in-depth care. This is especially true when your sore throat doesn’t go away, or the pain can only be felt in a particular part of the throat.

This article will explore some unusual causes of a sore throat—including problems that can cause soreness on just one side or in one particular area of your throat—and how to treat them.

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What Is a Sore Throat on One Side?

In most viral or bacterial illnesses, a sore throat feels as though it affects your entire throat. Sometimes, though, this inflammation and soreness—also known as pharyngitis—is focused on one particular section or side of your throat.

Below are conditions that could lead to pain on just one side of your throat.

Postnasal Drip

Postnasal drip happens when more mucus than normal moves from your nasal cavity down into your throat. Mucus production is normal and in most cases, is swallowed with no problem. Sometimes, however, mucus production increases due to allergies, infections, or other causes.

Irritation from postnasal drip might just be an annoying feeling of trapped mucus, but it can also lead to soreness and inflammation. In some cases, postnasal drip may only affect one side of your throat, including if the drip is caused by something lodged in the nose. This is more common in children than adults.

If you notice pain or swelling in your throat—especially on one side after feeling a buildup of mucus in your throat—talk to your healthcare provider. If this condition appears in a child, check for items lodged in the nose that could be increasing mucus production.

Tonsillitis 

There are three pairs of tonsils in your throat. These glands help your immune system clear bacteria and other pathogens from your body. If your tonsils—or even just one of them—becomes enlarged or inflamed, you will know it.

Tonsillitis develops when one or more of these tonsils becomes inflamed or infected, usually because of a viral or bacterial infection. While you may have soreness all over your throat, it’s also possible for just one tonsil, or tonsils on just one side of your throat, to become affected.

Recurrent tonsillitis, or tonsillitis that threatens your ability to swallow or breathe, may be treated with surgical removal of the tonsils. This procedure, called a tonsillectomy, usually is performed as an outpatient procedure (allowing you to recover at home, rather than in the hospital).

Common treatments for more minor cases of tonsillitis include:

  • A humidifier
  • Lozenges
  • Fluids
  • Warm saltwater (for gargling)
  • Over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers
  • Antibiotics

Peritonsillar Abscess

Bacterial and viral infections that cause tonsillitis often affect the entire throat. In some cases, though, these infections lead to complications that cause irritation on one side of the throat.

A peritonsillar abscess, or quinsy, is an infection of the head and neck that causes pus to collect next to the tonsils and pharynx (cavity behind the nose and mouth). It can develop as a complication to tonsillitis and other infections and is normally caused by Staphylococcus aureus (staph infection), Haemophilus influenzae (pneumonia and meningitis), and Group A hemolytic streptococci (GAS; common for strep throat or pharyngitis) bacteria. While most cases of strep infections usually cause pain on both sides of the throat, this is a complication where pain may be limited to one side.

Most abscesses develop from bacteria and pus that remain after an infection in the affected tonsil. While you may have tonsillitis in more than one tonsil, it’s possible that an abscess can form on just one; a sore throat that is worse on one side is a common symptom.

Treatment of these abscesses may include:

  • Antibiotics
  • Corticosteroids
  • Fluids
  • Pain medications

In more severe cases, your healthcare provider may need to drain the abscess or perform other, more invasive treatments.

Canker Sores

Canker sores, or aphthous ulcers, are small sores that can develop on your mucus membranes, often inside the mouth or on the gums. These sores can have many causes, such as:

  • Trauma
  • Injury
  • Stress
  • Allergies
  • Toxins or other irritants
  • Nutritional deficiencies
  • Immune system disorders

A burning sensation may come a day or two before the formation of a canker sore, and the sore will eventually form as a red or gray lesion with drainage. Although canker sores form on mucus membranes, they can affect several areas, including your:

  • Throat
  • Cheek
  • Lips
  • Floor of the mouth
  • Surface of the tongue
  • Soft palate (muscle and connective tissue at the back and roof of the mouth)

Hand, Foot, and Mouth Disease

Hand, foot, and mouth disease is a viral infection caused by the Coxsackie virus. It’s more prevalent in children under 10 years of age but may occur in young adults as well. The virus is spread through physical contact with an infected person or with droplets produced through coughing, sneezing, or talking. It can also be contracted from surfaces containing the virus such as doorknobs or toys.

Symptoms of Hand, foot, and mouth disease vary from case to case but often include a fever and sore throat that appears three to five days after initial exposure to the virus. Painful sores may develop on the tongue and inside the mouth that blister and make it difficult to swallow, eat, or drink. Depending on where the sores develop, this could be felt more on one side than the other. A blister-like rash can also appear on the hands and feet.

There’s no specific course of treatment for Hand, Foot, and Mouth Disease. Most cases will subside within seven to 10 days. Those infected should take care to stay hydrated and relieve pain and fever with over-the-counter medications.

Swollen Lymph Nodes

Your lymph nodes are part of your immune system and, like your tonsils, can help your body clear bacteria and viruses. In many cases, swollen lymph nodes are a sign that your immune system is working as it should. There are lymph nodes located throughout your body, including in the neck, so you could notice pain in one node at a time, or more than one.

As bacteria and viruses collect in your lymph nodes, your immune cells work to destroy them. The collection of too many infectious particles, however, can cause your lymph nodes to swell noticeably. In some cases, this swelling is painful and can even make it difficult to swallow or breathe.

Swollen lymph nodes are usually treated like other infections, including antibiotics (if it’s a bacterial infection). However, if you have swelling in your lymph node that isn’t going away, or keeps returning, your healthcare provider may need to check for other causes, such as lymphoma or other cancers.

Glossopharyngeal Neuralgia and Trigeminal Neuralgia

Glossopharyngeal and trigeminal neuralgia can develop when those respective nerves become compressed or irritated. Both the glossopharyngeal and trigeminal nerves can lead to throat pain.

Irritation of these nerves can occur out of the blue, but it can also develop after situations such as:

  • Dental work
  • Facial injury or trauma
  • Tumors
  • Facial swelling

Pain caused by these nerve problems can last from several seconds to several minutes. This intense, shock-like pain is usually treated with seizure medications, nerve blocks, or even surgery, in severe cases.

Tooth Abscess or Infection

Sometimes it can be difficult to tell exactly where pain in your mouth or throat has started. The anatomy of the head and neck is very precise, but also extremely limited in space. Dental problems, such as a tooth abscess or infection, can quickly progress, leading to swelling and pain in other areas of the head and neck, including the throat.

Pain in your throat, especially on one side or near a tooth that is also causing you pain, can be a red flag for a dental problem. You may also experience swollen lymph nodes, fever, or swallowing problems. A tooth abscess or infection should be treated by your dentist and may require the use of antibiotics.

Laryngitis

Laryngitis can be caused by an infection of the throat that centers on the larynx, or voice box. This can lead to symptoms such as a throat tickle or dry cough and swollen lymph nodes on both or one side of the neck resulting in pain felt on one side of the throat. Hoarseness and loss of voice may also occur. These infections typically pass in about a week.

Causes of laryngitis include allergies, excessive use of the voice (such as screaming), smoking tobacco, viral upper respiratory infections (such as a cold), and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Preventive measures like staying up-to-date on vaccinations, practicing good oral hygiene, and avoiding inhaled chemicals and cigarette smoke can help lower your risk of developing laryngitis.

GERD

GERD is another condition that can lead to a sore throat on one side or in a particular area. When you have GERD, you either make too much stomach acid or those acids can bubble up out of your stomach.

Laryngopharyngeal reflux is a condition in which acid bubbles up out of the stomach and reaches your throat. Over time, this irritation can even lead to permanent changes in the lining of your throat, called Barrett’s esophagus.

Talk to your healthcare provider if your sore throat has developed alongside other digestive issues or indigestion. There are medications you can try that may help control your stomach acid production or reflux.

Head and Neck Cancers

Head and neck cancers can also be a source of a sore throat that develops on just one side. In fact, a sore throat on only one side that has lasted four weeks or more led to a cancer diagnosis in nearly 10% of people enrolled in one study.

Head and neck cancers usually begin in the mucus membranes of the mouth or throat, which may eventually develop into cancers that form in the following places:

  • Mouth
  • Throat
  • Larynx
  • Sinuses or nasal cavity
  • Salivary glands

These cancers can develop as a result of exposure to toxins or smoking, as well as infections from certain viruses.

When to See a Healthcare Provider

It can be difficult to decide whether a one-sided sore throat is a cause for worry. There are several nonserious reasons for soreness on just one side of the throat, but there are also serious conditions that can create this symptom, too.

If you have a sore throat that isn’t getting better or worsening after a week or so, talk to your healthcare provider. This goes for a sore throat that affects one side or your entire throat.

Other red flags that should elicit a call or visit a healthcare provider include:

  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Breathing problems
  • Coughing up blood
  • Fever

Treatment

Treatment for a sore throat depends on the cause. Sore throats caused by a viral infection eventually resolve on their own, but remedies such as drinking warm liquids and sucking on lozenges can help make you more comfortable. For sore throats caused by bacterial infections, antibiotics are usually prescribed.

How long a sore throat lasts whether on one side or both, depends on what may be causing it. Some infections such as laryngitis will go away within a week or two without significant treatment. Others, such as those caused by chemotherapy medications, may not dissipate until those treatments have concluded.

It’s important to talk to your healthcare provider about your specific symptoms and any other medical issues you are experiencing in order to get the best diagnosis and treatment for your particular condition.

Summary

There are many different conditions, such as infections, that can cause a sore throat. Not all of these cause soreness in your entire throat. Problems in the tonsils or various glands can develop on one side or the other, as can inflammation or injury.

A one-sided sore throat can be concerning, but most cases aren’t a sign of serious illness. If your sore throat doesn’t improve after a week or two, talk to your healthcare provider about any additional symptoms that may be present, such as fever or bleeding with a cough. If you develop difficulty breathing or swallowing, seek help immediately.

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