Get exclusive member benefits & effect social change. Join Today
Painful swallowing is relatively common. People of all ages may experience it. This symptom has many possible causes. Difficulty swallowing along with pain is generally a symptom of an infection or an allergic reaction. See your doctor if the pain is severe or if it interferes with eating, drinking, or breathing.
The most common causes of painful swallowing are:
Other possible causes of painful swallowing include:
In rare cases, painful swallowing can indicate certain types of cancer, such as esophageal cancer.
Conditions that cause painful swallowing can lead to complications such as:
You may experience the following symptoms along with painful swallowing if you have an infection:
Call your child’s pediatrician if they experience the following symptoms along with painful swallowing:
Go to the hospital right away if you’re an adult and experience the following symptoms:
Schedule an appointment with your doctor if your painful swallowing occurs along with any of the following:
Always call your doctor if you’re experiencing any other symptoms that concern you.
When visiting your doctor, make sure to mention every symptom you’re experiencing. You should also tell them if any symptoms are new or getting worse. Describing all of your symptoms will help your doctor determine the cause of your pain.
If a physical examination isn’t enough to determine a diagnosis, your doctor may order certain tests, such as the following:
A barium swallow test includes a series of X-rays of your esophagus. You get the X-rays after you swallow a special liquid containing a harmless element called barium. Barium temporarily coats your esophagus and shows up on an X-ray, allowing your doctor to trace the pathway of your food. The barium swallow test can show your doctor whether food is traveling from your mouth to your stomach properly.
Treatment for painful swallowing can vary depending on the cause of the pain. Your doctor will likely prescribe antibiotics to treat infections of the throat, tonsils, or esophagus. Your doctor may give you a mouthwash that can numb your throat while you take oral antibiotics. This numbing agent helps to block any pain you may feel when swallowing the pill. For severe pain, a throat spray can help numb the pain. Your doctor may also prescribe anti-inflammatory medications to reduce inflammation in the esophagus, throat, or tonsils.
If you frequently experience painful swallowing due to recurring tonsillitis or if your tonsillitis doesn’t respond to medication, your doctor may recommend surgery to remove your tonsils. This surgery is called a tonsillectomy. It’s an outpatient procedure, which means you can go home the same day as the surgery. You and your doctor can discuss your risks and determine whether a tonsillectomy is appropriate for your condition.
Over-the-counter (OTC) antacids may relieve swelling in the esophagus due to acid reflux. However, your doctor will prescribe medications that are specifically designed to provide relief from symptoms if you have chronic acid reflux or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Taking OTC antacids sometimes isn’t enough to treat the symptoms of GERD.
Other treatments you can try at home include the following:
A humidifier is a machine that converts water to moisture that slowly fills the air. A humidifier increases the humidity in a room. Breathing in this moist air can ease throat inflammation and provide relief from a sore throat. Taking a hot shower also has a similar effect.
Though they haven’t been scientifically proven to ease sore throats, herbal lozenges and teas can reduce throat pain. Examples include sage, licorice root, and honeysuckle flower. You may able to find these at your local drugstore or health food store.
Try OTC medication and home remedies to ease your pain. You may have an infection or temporary illness that you can treat effectively at home. However, you should call your doctor if your pain becomes more severe or if your pain doesn’t subside within three days. You should also contact your doctor if you’re experiencing any other symptoms that concern you.
Wash your hands regularly and to avoid sharing eating utensils or drinking glasses with other people to prevent spreading any possible infection. Staying hydrated and getting plenty of rest are also important for ensuring your recovery.
Written by: Rachel Nall
Medically reviewed on: Apr 20, 2016: Deborah Weatherspoon, Ph.D, MSN, RN, CRNA
Enter your symptoms in our Symptom Checker to find out possible causes of your symptoms. Go.
Enter any list of prescription drugs and see how they interact with each other and with other substances. Go.
Enter its color and shape information, and this tool helps you identify it. Go.
Find information on drug interactions, side effects, and more. Go.