Allergy Causes & Symptoms

Sore Throat vs. Post-Nasal Drip: Here's How to Tell the Difference

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We’ve all been there—that moment when you wake up and something just doesn’t feel right. There’s a tingling in your throat. It’s uncomfortable to swallow. You have a cough that just won’t quit.

While both a sore throat and post-nasal drip are common symptoms of various ailments—including allergies, colds, and flus—they require different treatments depending on the cause.

What is post-nasal drip?

Generally, you swallow mucus, along with saliva, without even realizing it, in tiny increments throughout the day. It’s easy to think of mucus as something that occurs only when you’re sick, but it’s actually crucial to your respiratory health. It moistens and cleanses your nasal lining, keeps the air passing through moist, and helps fight infection by filtering out bacteria and viruses when you inhale.

The problems begin when your nose starts producing more mucus than it should (or mucus that’s thicker than usual), making it hard for it to drain properly. Sometimes the extra mucus exits through your nostrils, resulting in a runny nose. When the mucus drips down the back of your nose down into your throat, though, it’s known as post-nasal drip.

Post-nasal drip can be caused by a lot of different things. Like we said before, allergies, colds, and flus are common triggers, but they can also be induced by:

  • Cold, dry weather
  • Deviated septum, which most often occurs when the wall between your nostrils is crooked
  • Foods or drinks that put mucus-production into overdrive (like spicy foods or dairy)
  • Sinus infections, or inflamed sinuses
  • Sinus headaches or migraine headaches

And what is a sore throat?

A sore throat (known in medical lingo as pharyngitis) is most commonly caused by a viral infection, like the cold or the flu, or a bacterial infection, like strep.

The treatment often depends on the cause. For example, sore throats from colds and flus often go away on their own—though you may want to try different medications and home remedies to relieve the pain until it does—while sore throats from a bacterial infection require antibiotics.

Can post-nasal drip feel like a sore throat?

Post-nasal drip can absolutely feel like a sore throat, especially since many common respiratory illnesses lead to both.

How do I know if I have post-nasal drip or a sore throat?

When it comes to figuring out whether you have post-nasal drip or a sore throat, there are certain symptoms to look for. While both may include a burning or scratchy sensation in the throat and a persistent cough, each has a unique set of symptoms as well.

Post-nasal drip symptoms may include:

  • Feeling the need to spit or swallow mucus
  • Throat clearing (and feeling excessive mucus, or a lump in the throat, even after clearing your throat)
  • Hoarseness
  • Mucus in the back of your throat or mucus stuck between your nose and throat

Sore throat symptoms may include:

  • Pain in throat when speaking or opening and closing your mouth
  • Pain when swallowing
  • Red or swollen tonsils
  • Throat feels tender to the touch

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Is post-nasal drip a symptom of COVID-19?

It’s true that there’s a lot of overlapping symptoms among COVID-19 and colds, flus, allergies, and bacterial and sinus infections, but post-nasal drip isn’t one of them. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the most common symptoms of COVID-19 are dry cough, fever, tiredness, and in some cases, aches and pains, nasal congestion, sore throat, and runny nose.

Of course, even if you’re pretty sure what you have is post-nasal drip, if you think there’s a chance you have COVID-19, you should get tested and quarantine until you have your results. And if the cause of your post-nasal drip ends up being something contagious like a cold or flu, as opposed to allergies or a deviated septum, it’s a good idea to limit interactions with other people so you don’t get them sick.

How should I treat my sore throat?

How you treat your sore throat symptoms will depend on what’s causing them. There is some overlap with how to manage a sore throat caused by post-nasal drip and one not caused by post-nasal drip. In both cases, you should avoid pollution and irritants (such as cigarette smoke and being too close to cleaning products), gargle with warm water and salt, and use a humidifier and/or HEPA filter.

What helps soothe an irritated throat from post-nasal drip?

The best way to combat a sore throat caused by post-nasal drip is to attack the source by treating the post-nasal drip itself. In addition to the solutions mentioned above, you can also:

  • Take advantage of gravity by keeping your head elevated so mucus will drain from your nasal passages. For example, try sleeping on two pillows instead of one.
  • Inhale steam to thin mucus and moisten your nose and throat, all of which will make it easier to drain. Yep, we’re giving you permission to take a long, hot shower.
  • Use a nasal rinse product like a Neti pot or squeeze bottle (make sure to always use distilled, sterile, or boiled water once it’s cooled down)
  • Try saline or steroid nasal sprays

What helps soothe an irritated throat not caused by post-nasal drip?

If it turns out your sore throat isn’t the result of post-nasal drip, your treatment options will be a bit different. On top of avoiding pollution and irritants, gargling with saltwater, and using a humidifier, you should also:

  • Drink warm liquids like soup broth and tea with honey
  • Eat cold foods like popsicles
  • Get plenty of rest
  • Suck on lozenges
  • Try not to speak too much to give your throat a rest

Okay, I think I’ve got it—now what?

Both post-nasal drip and sore throats will often go away on their own, but each can be a symptom of a larger condition. If the above treatments don’t help, schedule an appointment with your doctor. If it turns out you’re experiencing post-nasal drip and sore throat symptoms from allergies, then Picnic can help! We offer a number of allergy treatments, including a nasal spray designed to tackle symptoms like post-nasal drip and throat lozenges. Read our guide on decongestants for allergies and take our quiz to find out which post-nasal drip medicine will —wait for it—blow your allergies away.

ARTICLE REVIEWED BYAmina H. Abdeldaim, MD MPHPicnic Medical Director
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