Aside from having a few too many glasses of wine the night before, more often than not the source of many headaches can be traced to problems in the ear, nose and throat. So far in our three-part series, we’ve examined different causes and connections in the ear and nose. This final part of the series will examine throat pain and headaches and what you can do to find relief.
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Let’s begin by taking a look at some of the most common throat conditions that may be associated with headaches.
The cold in all its variants is responsible for an estimated 85-95% of sore throats in adults. This term is very broad, however. Let’s take a look at it in more detail.
Sore throats caused by either a bacterial infection or viral infection are connected with a wide range of throat pain and headache symptoms. They are also associated with other problems such as:
- runny noses
- swollen glands
- body aches
- difficulty breathing
Many sore throats are caused by the same viruses we associate with the common cold: influenza, rhinovirus and coronavirus. But many can also be attributed to streptococcal bacteria (strep throat). If you see white patches in your throat, that is a sign that strep might be the cause.
Other bacteria and viruses may cause sore throats, such as the adenovirus or the Epstein – Barr virus (EBV), although these are less common. The best way for your doctor to diagnose any of these is by running a throat culture.
Just as sinus infections play a large role in nose pain and headaches so too do they cause throat pain and headaches. As we examined in part II of our headache series, headaches caused by sinus pain often are examples of referred pain. This pain is experienced in another part of the body instead of its actual source.
The usual culprit here is the trigeminal nerve. If you experience a sinus infection, then it will carry pain signals that you may feel in your head, above your nose and in your throat.
Rhinitis – or hay fever as it commonly called – is the source of most sinus infections. Your sinuses work to filter bacteria and viruses out of your body. However, when they become swollen and mucus cannot travel freely, an infection may occur. There is both allergic and non-allergic rhinitis.
Allergic rhinitis (hay fever) generally occurs when your body’s immune system reacts to a harmless substance such as pollen, pet dander or dust. This reaction creates a host of uncomfortable symptoms.
Non-allergic rhinitis is a little trickier, but is also often attributed to environmental factors. It can be the result of:
- high pollution levels
- humidity changes
Regardless of the cause of rhinitis, it often leads to headaches and other forms of discomfort.
Although we most often associate tonsillitis with children, it can also happen in adults. Generally, one of the cold viruses is the cause. It is also associated with other cold symptoms such as headache, high fever, and swollen tonsils.
Those with tonsillitis suffer from trouble swallowing, stiff neck and halitosis. Young children are particularly susceptible to tonsillitis but may be incapable of communicating their symptoms. If you have a child you fear may have it, watch for symptoms such as:
- refusing to eat
- are unusually fussy
- having difficulty swallowing
Want to know more about tonsillitis? Watch the video below:
Recurrent and acute tonsillitis are not the same thing. While recurrent tonsillitis often goes away on its own, acute tonsillitis may warrant more immediate medical attention.
In either case, be sure to consult with your doctor. She may advise a tonsillectomy in children, but this procedure has grown less common in adults. It hasn’t been found particularly successful in treating recurrent sore throat.
Treating throat pain and headaches
As with other ENT pain, colds or flu, most forms of treating throat pain involve minimizing symptoms. For the most part, rest and common anti-inflammatory medications like ibuprofen and aspirin, along with drinking plenty of warm liquids, are the best ways to treat mild discomfort.
You may need to visit your doctor in more serious cases. Strep cultures and other tests can help determine the exact cause of your problem. From there, she’ll likely prescribe antibiotics.
In the case of throat pain caused by allergic rhinitis, most people find relief through a combination of OTC antihistamines like loratadine (Claritin) and cetirizine (Zyrtec) along with nasal sprays. These medications may contain antihistamines along with steroids. They only work to solve throat pain and headaches caused by allergies.
Non-allergic rhinitis is more difficult to treat. In high pollution environments, doctors may advise wearing face masks and staying indoors when pollutions counts are at their highest.
Finally, tonsillitis is often another symptom of the common cold. The methods above may be helpful for treating discomfort. However, in cases of acute or recurrent tonsillitis, it’s important to visit your doctor. This is especially true if you are having difficulty swallowing and eating and pain medication does not help.
There are several easy things you can do on your own to relieve sore throat and headaches. Drinking green tea is a proven method to reduce discomfort. Everybody knows that drinking tea helps soothe a sore throat, but green tea is particularly effective because of its anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidative properties.
However, there is no proven benefit of gargling green tea as many natural remedy sites may claim. Saltwater solutions, however, can reduce pain. To give it try:
- mix 3 teaspoons of salt into 5 ounces of warm water
- gargle for 30 seconds
Dry air also plays a role in throat pain and headaches. This is why you’ll notice sore throats more often in winter than summer. You can use a humidifier to add moisture to a room.
Throat pain and headaches relieved
We know that there many causes of throat pain and headaches. However, more often than not, you can treat most of them at home or by visiting your pharmacy and getting the right OTC medication.
In more acute and recurrent cases, be sure to seek medical advice from a health care professional. More than anything, when it comes to any type of headache, it’s important to know what’s causing it so you can find effective treatment methods and get the relief you need.
Read part I of this series on ENT pain here.
Read part II of this series on ENT pain here.
How do you manage throat pain and headaches?
Pain management starts and ends with health awareness and dedication. Click here to read more.
This post has been updated in April 2019 with new information and resources.