Hint: Your throat, nose, and ears are all connected.
Yup, that’s another unpleasantry spring sniffle sufferers often have to face. Though not everyone associates an itchy, scratchy throat with seasonal allergies, this symptom is completely normal, says Omid Mehdizadeh, MD, an otolaryngologist and laryngologist at Providence St. John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California.
That doesn’t make it fun, though. Here’s a look at why allergies sometimes cause a sore throat—and what you can do to start feeling better.
Why allergies can cause a sore throat
First, let’s talk allergies 101: If you’re allergic to something, your body sees proteins in that substance as a foreign invader. And when those proteins get into your system—say, by breathing in a whiff of dust or getting pollen blown into your eyes—your immune system launches an inflammatory response in an attempt to protect you.
Part of that inflammatory response involves producing lots of extra mucus. The mucus helps propel the debris out of your body, but it can give you a runny nose and congestion. And that’s not all. “The ears, nose, and throat are all physically connected, so problems in one area can affect another,” says William Reisacher, MD, director of allergy services at New York-Presbyterian Hospital and Weill Cornell Medicine in New York.
As a result, that mucus can cause postnasal drip, where the gooky stuff dribbles down the back of your throat and makes it feel raw and irritated. Allergens can also trigger the tissues in the back of your throat to become inflamed, which only adds to the discomfort, says Dr. Mehdizadeh.
How to tell the difference between a cold and allergies
Both allergies and infections can cause symptoms like sore throat, runny nose, and congestion. So how can you tell what’s actually making you feel crummy?
How your symptoms begin are often one big clue: Colds tend to creep up slowly, while allergy symptoms usually flare up shortly after you’re exposed to an allergen, according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology. If you start to notice itching, stuffiness, or an annoying tickle in the back of your throat after spending some time outside, for instance, you’re probably dealing with allergies.
Other clues to watch for: If your sore throat tends to get worse or makes it hard to swallow, or you develop a fever, chills, or body aches, you’re probably dealing with a cold or infection, Dr. Mehdizadeh says. If your allergy medications don’t seem to be helping, that’s also a sign it’s probably a cold.
The bad news? “Colds and allergies can exist at the same time,” Dr. Reisacher says. So if you can’t figure out what you’re dealing with, talk with your doctor.
How to treat a sore throat caused by allergies
Allergy meds are usually the best place to start. Anti-histamines, like Claritin, Zyrtec, or Benadryl, can help tame inflammation and ease your symptoms overall, Dr. Mehdizadeh says. Nasal sprays, like ipratropium, and nasal glucocorticoids, like fluticasone, are good for easing postnasal drip, too.
Natural remedies could also make a difference. Gargling with warm saltwater can help get rid of irritating mucus, and drinking plenty of water or inhaling steam may soothe scratchiness.
Of course, prevention might be the most effective tactic of all. Minimizing your exposure to allergens can keep your symptoms from flaring up in the first place—and help stop that sore throat before it starts.