When you get that sudden tickling, scratchy sensation in your throat, it can be hard to tell if it's an allergy symptom, or something else—like a cold. You may feel concerned, and you may be unsure about how to treat it.
Both a sore throat and post-nasal drip are common symptoms of allergies and viral infections (like the common cold and the flu). It's important to understand their differences, so you can find the correct treatment and know when to visit the doctor.
What Is Post-Nasal Drip?
Every day, without even realizing it, you swallow mucus and saliva. And it's completely normal. Mucus isn't only present when you're sick—it's essential for your respiratory health. When you breathe in, mucus moistens and cleanses your nasal lining while assisting with airflow. Mucus also serves as a barrier, trapping bacteria and other particles so they don't enter your lungs when you breathe in.
Post-nasal drip occurs when your body produces too much of a good thing—mucus. The excess mucus can either exit through your nostrils, causing a runny nose, or drip down the back of your throat, causing a tickling sensation. It can also make you cough or clear your throat more frequently than normal.
Allergies, colds, and the flu are the most common causes of post-nasal drip. With allergies, histamine is released which also signals your body to produce more mucus. When you have a cold or the flu, your body produces more mucus to help fight off the infection, possibly resulting in a sore throat.
Besides infection and allergies, post-nasal drip can be caused by:
- Changes in temperature or humidity
- A deviated septum (the wall between your nostrils)
- Certain foods, especially spicy foods and dairy
- Cigarette smoke
- Sinus infections or sinus headaches
What Is a Sore Throat?
A sore throat (also known as pharyngitis) is usually caused by an infection, either viral (cold or flu) or bacterial (strep). Treatment depends on the cause. Viral infections often go away on their own, but medication can be used to relieve symptoms. A bacterial infection often needs antibiotics.
Can a Sore Throat and Post-Nasal Drip Feel Similar?
Yes. While a sore throat is usually from your body battling an infection, post-nasal drip can irritate the lining in the throat and inflame it further. Clearing excess mucus from your throat or coughing can also strain the area (especially your vocal folds), resulting in a scratchy, sore feeling.
How Can I Tell the Difference?
There are a few key differences between post-nasal drip and a sore throat from infection.
Potential post-nasal drip symptoms:
- A runny nose or congestion
- Coughing (especially at night)
- Tickling in your throat that leads to frequent clearing or coughing
- Bad breath
- The feeling of mucus dripping down the back of your throat (this is called "phlegm" or "post-nasal drainage")
Potential sore throat symptoms:
- A burning sensation
- Pain when swallowing
- Fever (usually with strep throat or the flu)
- Red and swollen tonsils (usually with strep throat)
- White patches on the tonsils
Can Post-Nasal Drip Be a COVID Symptom?
Post-nasal drip is not currently listed as a symptom of COVID-19 by the CDC (while a sore throat is). However, it's important to remember that everyone experiences symptoms differently and some people may experience milder symptoms than others.
The World Health Organization (WHO) lists the following as the most common symptoms of COVID-19: dry cough, fatigue, fever, aches and pains, sore throat, congestion, or a runny nose.
If you're unsure about your symptoms and think there's a chance they may be from COVID-19, you should get tested and quarantine yourself until you know for certain. It's a good idea to limit social contact, prevent the spread of anything you may have, and follow the recommended COVID-19 guidelines.
Sore Throat Treatments
Treatment depends on the cause. For a sore throat caused by post-nasal drip, you can try the following:
- Gargling with warm salt water
- Running a humidifier in your room
- Avoiding trigger foods
- Taking over-the-counter medication like ibuprofen or acetaminophen
- Drinking lots of fluids
- Taking antihistamines if the post-nasal drip is from allergies
If your sore throat is from a viral infection like the cold or flu, there is no specific treatment. You can help relieve symptoms with the following:
- Over-the-counter cold medicine
- Fluids and rest
- A humidifier in your room to moisten the air (dry air can irritate your throat)
If your sore throat is from a bacterial infection like strep, you will need antibiotics. If you have a sore throat that lasts more than three days or gets worse, please contact your doctor.
Post-Nasal Drip Treatments
To relieve symptoms, the best treatment is to attack the underlying condition. Along with everything above, you can:
- Elevate your head so excess mucus will drain from your nasal passages. Prop yourself up at night with a few pillows to avoid lying flat.
- Use a steam or warm mist inhaler to moisten your nose and throat. You can also take a long, hot shower. This will help loosen mucus so it clears sooner.
- Use a Neti pot or squeeze bottle with distilled, sterile water to rinse your nasal passages.
- Use a steroid or saline nasal spray.
How to Help a Sore Throat Unrelated to Post-Nasal Drip?
If your sore throat is from an infection, please work with your doctor to get it treated. At-home remedies that can help with sore throat symptoms include:
- Drinking warm liquids like tea or soup
- Prioritizing getting enough sleep
- Lozenges and cough drops
- Minimizing speaking to give your throat a rest
How Can I Prevent Post-Nasal Drip from Allergies?
Allergies are a common problem for many people, and post-nasal drip is often a side effect. While there are treatments available to temporarily relieve the symptoms, the best way to stop post-nasal drip from allergies is to treat your allergies at the root cause.
Sublingual immunotherapy is an allergy treatment that works by introducing small doses of allergens under your tongue. This helps your body build immunity to your triggers, lasting in long-term allergy relief.
If you want to get lifelong relief from your allergies, take our quick online assessment to see if sublingual immunotherapy is right for you!