When your throat feels good, you probably don’t think about it much. But a dry, uncomfortable, scratchy throat can really mess up your day – especially if you have a job requiring lots of talking.
“Dry, uncomfortable throat is an extremely common symptom,” says Robert T. Sataloff, M.D., D.M.A., F.A.C.S, professor and chairman of the Department of Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery at Drexel University College of Medicine. “Unfortunately, sometimes it is more than an inconvenience. It also can be a symptom of potentially troublesome problems.”
Here’s why you might feel like you swallowed sand, plus what to do to soothe the discomfort.
What causes a dry throat
Some common causes of a dry throat include:
Overusing your voice. If you yelled at your favorite sports team on television last night, your throat might feel raw today. For some guys, especially those who speak, shout, or sing for hours a day as part of their career, this raw, dry feeling can become a chronic problem.
Nasal congestion. A stuffed-up nose can lead to a dry throat. When your nose is congested and you breathe through your mouth, the saliva in your mouth and throat evaporates. Viral infections, such as colds, the flu, and Covid can all stuff up your nose and irritate your throat. So can allergies. A similar issue can happen in people with sleep apnea who use continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machines, says Dr. Sataloff.
Laryngopharyngeal reflux. In this common condition, stomach acid backs up into your throat, causing discomfort, a feeling that there is a lump in your throat, and dryness that can wake you up at night. You might also notice bad breath. Over time, laryngopharyngeal reflux can be not only uncomfortable but also dangerous, contributing to an increased risk of esophageal and laryngeal cancers, says Dr. Sataloff.
Sensitivity to environmental irritants. Everyday irritants, from dust to perfumes or gasoline, can irritate some peoples’ throats, says Dr. Sataloff. Do you live or work in an area where you’re exposed to asbestos, fiberglass particles, paint pigments, or materials used in ceramics or jewelry making? Those exposures could also be the culprits behind your dry throat.
Tobacco use.Smoking or chewing tobacco can damage your throat’s mucosal lining, causing discomfort and dryness, says Dr. Sataloff.
Medications.Certain drugs can have dry mouth and throat as a side effect. Examples include some antidepressants and antipsychotics, antihistamines and decongestants for allergies, obesity medications, blood pressure medicines, asthma medications, urinary incontinence treatments, antidiarrheals, chemotherapy drugs, and Parkinson’s treatments.
Other medical conditions. Many common conditions, including diabetes, yeast infections, various autoimmune diseases, Alzheimer’s disease, HIV/AIDS, cystic fibrosis, nerve injuries, and salivary gland disorders can decrease the lubrication of your throat and leave it feeling dry.
What to do about a dry throat
You can soothe a dry, uncomfortable throat at home in the following ways:
1. Cut back on alcohol and caffeine. Both can aggravate throat dryness.
2. Drink enough water. By hydrating, you increase your blood volume and help your salivary glands create more spit. “We hydrate not by drinking six or eight glasses of water a day, but by allowing our bodies’ computers to tell us whether we have drunk enough, and those are the kidneys,” says Dr. Sataloff. “You want to drink enough so that your urine approaches water color.”
3. Hydrate the air around you. Sleeping with a humidifier in your bedroom can help you retain moisture, especially in the winter when indoor air is particularly dry.
4. Pop a sugar-free hard candy. These sweets can help increase saliva flow to coat and soothe your throat.
5. Reduce your intake of highly salty foods. Lay off the highly salted pretzels until your throat starts feeling better.
6. Use artificial saliva products. These products, such as Biotene mouthwashes, contain ingredients to mimic your natural saliva and soothe a dry mouth and throat.
When to see a doctor for your dry throat
If your dry throat persists and has no obvious, temporary cause, like vocal overuse or seasonal allergies, see your doctor.
“Some people bring this complaint up incidentally and have had it for months or years and just tolerate it and figure there’s nothing they can do about it,” says Dr. Sataloff.
Often, there is something you can do, and the first part of treatment is an accurate diagnosis, he says.
“It makes a big difference whether people are just breathing through their mouths and drying their throats, in which case, the solutions might be getting their noses working properly, or whether they have a medication side effect that can be cured by switching to another equally effective medication,” he says. “Or whether they have diabetes or reflux or some other serious underlying problem that should be treated, and treating it will often make the symptoms go away.”
You can start with your primary care doctor, and in some cases, you might need to see an otolaryngologist (ear, nose, and throat doctor). For example, an otolaryngologist has the training and tools to help you spot laryngopharyngeal reflux, an often overlooked condition, says Dr. Sataloff.
Often your doctor can help you with a tailored treatment plan that will bring relief. And if they can’t—say, if your dry throat is caused by a medication that you need and for which there is no substitute—at least you know.
“There’s a huge psychological comfort factor to knowing why there’s a dry, uncomfortable throat,” says Dr. Sataloff.
One more thing: If you use tobacco, we know you don’t need us to tell you to quit (and stay up to date on checkups with your healthcare providers). But consider this: If you ignore throat dryness because you assume it’s par for the course given your habit, you could do some serious damage. Yes, tobacco use is one cause of throat dryness, but it can also contribute to reflux, another culprit. Both are cancer-causing processes, “and it’s really important to get those diagnosed and managed as well as possible,” says Dr. Sataloff.
Julie Stewart is a writer and content strategist whose work has also appeared in Health, and Women’s Health, Everyday Health, Vice, and Shape.
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