Updated on February 9, 2024
10 min read

Why Does My Throat Hurt on One Side When I Swallow?

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Why Does My Throat Hurt on One Side When I Swallow?

A viral or bacterial infection is the most common reason your throat hurts on one side when you swallow. You may feel soreness on a specific side due to post-nasal drip or a swollen lymph node.

However, there are other potential causes for pain in one side of the throat, including tonsillitis, canker sores, and COVID-19. Some underlying issues may need medical attention, especially if the soreness doesn’t go away. 

12 Potential Causes of Throat Hurting on One Side

Your throat might hurt for many different reasons, such as:

1.  Infections

Comparison between bacterial infection and viral infection of the throat illustration

An infection is the most common cause of throat pain and inflammation on one side. Pharyngitis is the result of inflammation in the back of the throat.1 It’s a frequent symptom of many types of infections, including:

Viral Infection

The common cold is a viral infection that can cause a sore throat, along with additional symptoms like:2

  • Sneezing
  • Runny or stuffed-up nose
  • Coughing
  • Post nasal drip
  • Watery or itchy eyes
  • Fever

You can’t fix your cold with medication, but you can soothe your symptoms. Colds typically last 2 to 3 days before resolving without treatment.

Bacterial Infection

Strep throat is a common bacterial infection caused by bacteria group A Streptococcus. The primary symptom of strep throat is soreness, pain, and swelling in the throat.

You might notice more pain on one side of your throat when swallowing. You may also notice:3

  • Fever
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Red and swollen tonsils
  • White spots on the tonsils
  • Red spots on the roof of your mouth

Treatment for strep throat involves antibiotics prescribed by your doctor. You’ll usually feel better within a few days of starting treatment.

Tooth Abscess or Infection

A tooth or dental abscess is a localized bacterial infection in the mouth that can cause an accumulation of pus in your gums or near the root of a tooth.

You might notice pain on one side of your throat if you have a dental abscess. Additional symptoms include:

  • Severe toothache
  • Swollen lymph nodes in the neck
  • Redness and swelling near the abscess
  • Pain in the gums and jaw
  • Bad breath
  • Tooth sensitivity
  • Pain while chewing
  • Fever

If you suspect a tooth infection, see a dentist immediately. Tooth infections can spread to the rest of your body if not treated promptly. 

2. Swollen Lymph Nodes

Lymph nodes, or lymph glands, are small lumps of tissue throughout your body that contain white blood cells. 

The lymph nodes in your neck may become swollen when you fight an infection like a cold, strep throat, or tonsillitis. They may feel tender or painful when swollen.

One gland may swell more than the other, causing pain on that side of the throat. You may notice other symptoms along with your swollen lymph nodes, depending on the cause.

3. Post-Nasal Drip

Post-nasal drip describes a trickle of mucus from your sinuses into your throat. It has many causes, including viral infections like colds, allergies, sinus infections, and temporary conditions like dry or polluted air.4

Whatever the cause, post-nasal drip can irritate your throat. It may be a minor discomfort or lead to inflammation and soreness in the throat. 

You may experience more soreness on one side of the throat from post-nasal drip if the mucus is coming prominently from one sinus.

You can often treat post-nasal drip with at-home measures and over-the-counter medications. However, if your sore throat continues for an extended period, you should consult a doctor.

4. Tonsillitis

Tonsillitis occurs when one or more of your tonsils, the glands in the back of your throat, become infected. It’s most likely to develop in children between the ages of 5 to 15.5

Detailed human Tonsillitis chart

It’s possible for just one tonsil, or the tonsils on one side of your throat, to be affected. That’s why only part of your throat may hurt when you swallow.

A sore throat is the main symptom of tonsillitis, but other possible symptoms include:

  • Fever
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Snoring
  • Dry cough

Some cases of tonsillitis are minor and will subside with appropriate treatment. Recurring or severe tonsillitis may require surgical removal of the tonsils.

5. Peritonsillar Abscess

One complication of tonsillitis is a peritonsillar abscess or quinsy. It’s an infection that causes pus to collect next to the tonsils. It can inflict pain on one side of the throat.

Tonsils and throat diseases. Peritonsillar abscess symptoms comparison vs. the normal throat

Symptoms of a peritonsillar abscess include:

  • Fever and chills
  • Severe pain on one side of the throat
  • Ear pain on one side
  • Pain when opening the mouth or swallowing
  • Swollen or tender lymph nodes
  • Drooling
  • Headache and neck stiffness

A peritonsillar abscess needs immediate medical attention. The abscess can rupture, spread into the lungs, and cause pneumonia.9

6. GERD

Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is a chronic condition where the contents of your stomach come back up into your esophagus. It develops when your lower esophageal sphincter isn’t functioning correctly. 

Gastroesophageal reflux disease Gerd or Heartburn illustration comparison vs. a healthy stomach

GERD may develop due to lifestyle habits such as smoking, pregnancy, or medication side effects.7 The most common symptoms include:

  • Heartburn
  • Regurgitation
  • Chest pain
  • Nausea
  • Pain while swallowing

If your throat is painful on one side while swallowing and you have these additional symptoms, you may have GERD. 

You may be able to treat it with over-the-counter medications and lifestyle changes. However, you should consult your doctor if your symptoms don’t respond to those measures.

7. COVID-19

A sore throat may also be a sign of COVID-19. Though symptoms depend on the variant, you may experience:

  • Sore throat on one or both sides
  • Cough
  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle aches
  • Loss of taste or smell

Though COVID-19 can cause many symptoms, you might have only a sore throat. If you don’t know why your throat hurts or you suspect exposure, take a test for COVID-19 or contact your doctor.

8. Canker Sores

Canker sores are open sores that form in the mouth, often due to a viral infection. They’re typically found inside the cheeks and lips but can also develop on the tongue, roof of the mouth, and gums.

A canker sore can be very painful. If you have a soreness towards the back of your mouth, it may cause pain on one side when swallowing. 

Symptoms of canker sores include:8

  • Small, painful red spot or bump that becomes an open ulcer
  • White or yellow center of the bump
  • Gray coloration while healing
  • Fever
  • Swollen lymph nodes

You can reduce your symptoms with at-home treatments. Contact your doctor if your canker sores:

  • Don’t go away within two weeks
  • Recur frequently
  • Accompany symptoms like fever, headache, and diarrhea

9. Injury

It’s possible to injure the back of your throat, causing pain on one side. Things that can cause injury and pain in the throat include:

  • Burns from hot food or beverages
  • Sharp edges of food, like chips
  • Intubation (the insertion of a tube in the throat)
  • Swallowing a foreign object
  • Consuming a harmful chemical

You may be able to soothe irritation from an injury with a saltwater gargle. If the pain doesn’t go away within a few days or you suspect a severe injury, seek medical help promptly.

10. Cancer

Head and neck cancers are another possible cause of a sore throat on one side. They account for 3% of all cancers in the US.10

In addition to throat soreness, symptoms of head and neck cancer include:

  • Red or white patches inside the mouth
  • Mouth pain or bleeding
  • Hearing difficulties or ringing in the ears
  • Trouble breathing or talking
  • Chronic sinus infections
  • Headaches
  • Facial swelling and pain

You may be at a higher risk of developing head or neck cancer if you use tobacco and alcohol, have certain infections, or are exposed to certain substances in a work environment.

The earlier you can catch cancer, the more likely you are to respond to treatment. If you have any of these symptoms, schedule an appointment with your doctor immediately.

11. Glossopharyngeal Neuralgia and Trigeminal Neuralgia

Glossopharyngeal neuralgia (GN) involves extreme pain in the back of the throat, tongue, or ear. The exact cause is unclear, but it’s associated with a blood vessel pressing on a nerve inside the skull.

You may experience pain that feels like an electric shock. It may happen out of nowhere or be triggered by swallowing. It may last several days or weeks and go away on its own.

Trigeminal neuralgia (TN) is a chronic pain disorder caused by an injury or lesion on the trigeminal nerve. The trigeminal nerve has three branches in your face and head. 

TN may cause:

  • Sudden, intense pain on one side of the face
  • Attacks of pain that last a few seconds or minutes
  • Numbness or tingling
  • Burning, throbbing, or electric sensations

GN and TN have medical and surgical treatment options you can discuss with your doctor.

12. Laryngitis and Other Throat Disorders

Laryngitis refers to an inflammation of the larynx or voice box. You might develop laryngitis from straining, irritation, or infection.

Illustration and chart of Laryngitis

Laryngitis can come on suddenly and worsen within a few days.6 You’ll notice symptoms like:

  • Sore throat (on one or both sides)
  • Hoarseness
  • Difficulty talking
  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Constant urge to clear your throat

Typically, laryngitis resolves on its own within a few days. However, you should contact your doctor if it doesn’t go away within a week or your symptoms worsen.

How Do I Treat a Sore Throat on One Side?

Treatment for one-sided throat soreness depends on the cause.

Over-the-Counter Treatments

Many conditions have over-the-counter treatments you can try to recover. You can use cough drops, decongestants, and antihistamines to relieve symptoms if you have a common cold or allergies.

Drugstores typically offer antacids that can help you reduce your side effects from GERD. For canker sores and lesions, you may be able to find topical treatments to soothe pain.

Pain relievers like acetaminophen and ibuprofen can reduce inflammation, relieving pain in the throat.

Prescription Treatments

Some causes of a sore throat will need prescription treatment from a doctor to heal. Bacterial infections such as strep throat and oral abscesses often require antibiotics. A doctor may also drain an abscess surgically.

Your doctor can prescribe medication to reduce acid if you have severe GERD. They can also give you prescription creams, mouthwashes, and medicine to heal recurring canker sores.

Head and neck cancers necessitate in-depth, long-term treatment such as chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery to remove tumors.

Home Remedies

You can try some do-it-yourself remedies at home to soothe symptoms. Top home remedies for relieving throat soreness on one side include:

  • Saltwater rinses – Gargling warm water with salt can relieve your sore throat.
  • Hot tea – Warm or hot herbal teas may have a soothing effect. Peppermint and chamomile are two popular options. 
  • Honey – Honey can coat your throat, dulling symptoms temporarily. Take it in a spoon or mix it into your tea.

Can a Sore Throat on One Side Be Prevented?

You can help prevent a sore throat by taking steps to keep yourself and others healthy, such as:

  • Wash your hands frequently
  • Avoid contact with people who have infections
  • Don’t smoke
  • Drink adequate water and get plenty of rest
  • Take antihistamines for chronic allergies
  • Follow your doctor’s guidance

When Should I Seek Medical Help for a Sore Throat on One Side?

You should seek medical help for a sore throat on one side if it persists for weeks, becomes severe, or is accompanied by the following symptoms:

  • High fever that doesn’t go away
  • Difficulty eating, breathing, or talking
  • Rashes
  • Joint pain
  • Hearing issues
  • Severe headaches

Always consult a doctor for professional guidance if unsure what’s causing a severe or chronic sore throat.

Summary

Your throat might hurt on one side for many reasons, including viral and bacterial infections, laryngitis, allergies, injury, or cancer.

You may be able to soothe a sore throat with over-the-counter treatments like lozenges or pain-relieving medications. For other conditions, you may need prescription medicine from a doctor. Bacterial infections often require antibiotics for recovery.

Preventing a sore throat can be accomplished by washing your hands, avoiding people who are sick, and taking care of yourself. Always consult your doctor if a sore throat becomes severe or lasts weeks.

Last updated on February 9, 2024
10 Sources Cited
Last updated on February 9, 2024
All NewMouth content is medically reviewed and fact-checked by a licensed dentist or orthodontist to ensure the information is factual, current, and relevant.

We have strict sourcing guidelines and only cite from current scientific research, such as scholarly articles, dentistry textbooks, government agencies, and medical journals. This also includes information provided by the American Dental Association (ADA), the American Association of Orthodontics (AAO), and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).
  1. Vorvick, L. “Sore Throat.” Penn Medicine, The Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania, 2021.
  2. Common Cold.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, US Department of Health and Human Services, 2021.
  3. Strep Throat: All You Need to Know.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, US Department of Health and Human Services, 2023.
  4. Schmerling, R. “Treatments for post-nasal drip.” Harvard Health Publishing, Harvard Medical School, 2022. 
  5. Tonsillitis.” Stanford Medicine Children’s Health, Stanford University, 2023.
  6. Laryngitis.” NHS Inform, NHS, 2023.
  7. Acid Reflux (GER & GERD) in Adults.” National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, US Department of Health and Human Services, 2023.
  8. Canker Sore.” Mount Sinai, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, 2023.
  9. Peritonsillar abscess.” Mount Sinai, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, 2023.
  10. Head and Neck Cancers.” National Cancer Institue, US Department of Health and Human Services, 2021.
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