We all clear our throats sometimes without giving it much thought. We may do it to get someone’s attention, to clear our throats of mucus or the feeling that something’s stuck, or it may be a nervous habit.
While there are several reasons for throat clearing, when it becomes a chronic occurrence, it can cause problems, including damage to your vocal cords.
So what are the underlying causes of chronic throat clearing, and what can we do about it?
Why We Clear Our Throats & When It Becomes a Problem
When we clear our throats, we are transferring mucus out of our airway and into the throat. It’s normal for us to secrete up to two liters of mucus per day! Throat clearing can become excessive when mucus is too thick or copious.
When this throat clearing process happens over and over again, it can cause redness and swelling of your vocal cords. If the clearing is very extensive, small growths called granulomas can form. If these granulomas get large, they can affect your breathing and your voice and may require surgery for removal.
In addition, the irritation and swelling produced by chronic throat clearing can cause even more mucus production, which causes more throat clearing. As you can see, it can become a never ending cycle. Without a conscious effort to break the cycle, chronic throat clearing will likely continue.
What Conditions Can Cause Chronic Throat Clearing?
Keep in mind that chronic throat clearing itself isn’t really a diagnosis. It’s a symptom of an underlying condition. Some of those might include:
Laryngopharyngeal reflux (LPR) is a condition in which stomach acid escapes out of the stomach and goes into the esophagus and throat. The acid irritates the throat, the vocal cords, and even the nasal passages. It may result in voice problems, swallowing problems, sinus drainage, and the frequent need to clear the throat. The most effective treatment is usually a combination of medication and lifestyle changes, such as avoiding certain types of food and drink, reducing stress, and losing weight.
2. Postnasal drainage
Another common cause of throat clearing is postnasal drainage, also called postnasal drip. Postnasal drip happens when your body starts producing extra mucus. You may feel it dripping down your throat from the back of your nose. Other symptoms may include cough, nausea, sore throat, and bad breath. Allergies are a common cause, along with viral infections, sinus infections, dry air, and changes in the weather.
Treatment for postnasal drip varies depending on the cause. If it’s related to allergies, avoiding the allergen or taking medications may stop the drip. Other treatments may include over-the-counter decongestants, antihistamines, saline nasal sprays, and staying hydrated.
Nasal allergies and food allergies can contribute to frequent throat clearing. In some cases, a food allergy or sensitivity may cause a tickling in your throat that makes you clear it. Dairy is a frequent cause, but foods such as eggs, rice, and soy may also be culprits. The treatment in such cases is avoiding the food that leads to symptoms.
Nasal allergies occur when the body’s immune system overreacts to the presence of substances, called allergens, that are usually harmless. Common allergens include pollen, dust, and animal dander. Nasal allergies can lead to excess mucus production, which can cause frequent throat clearing. Antihistamines, nasal sprays, and nasal rinsing can help with allergies, as well as avoiding the allergens when possible.
4. Side Effect of Medication
Some blood pressure medications can cause a tickle in your throat that contributes to chronic throat clearing and chronic cough. If you’re taking blood pressure medication and are frequently clearing your throat, talk to your doctor about a potential substitute.
Sometimes, there may be no underlying condition causing throat clearing. It can become a habit or something you subconsciously do when anxious or stressed. To break the habit, you can drink more fluids, ask someone to help you monitor your throat clearing, or look for an alternate activity to do when the need to clear your throat arises, such as tapping your fingers. Stress management can also be very helpful.
6. Swallowing Problems
Swallowing problems can arise for many reasons, and there are many ways to address them, depending on the exact situation. In general, difficulty swallowing can lead to throat irritation and frequent throat clearing as well as hoarseness, coughing, and choking when eating.
7. Vocal Cord Growths
When abnormal growths, such as polyps, nodules, or cysts grow on the vocal cords, you may feel as though something unusual is in the back of the throat. If you do not know that this is a physical growth, you may try to clear your throat in an attempt to dislodge the perceived object.
Causes of these growths can include smoking; allergies; overusing or straining the vocal cords from excessive singing or shouting; and frequent or strenuous coughing.
Treatment for Chronic Throat Clearing
Long-term treatment for chronic throat clearing depends on determining the underlying condition causing it. Treatment may include lifestyle changes, medications, or, in some cases, surgery.
Here are a few general tips for the treatment and prevention of chronic throat clearing:
- Drink plenty of water to keep the throat moist, which may relieve or lessen the feeling that something has become lodged in the throat. When you feel like you want to clear your throat, take a sip of water instead. Also, increase your water intake to help thin mucus and make it easier to swallow.
- Eat and chew slowly if you have difficulty swallowing.
- Use a humidifier to keep the air moist, which may help reduce throat irritation.
- Clear your throat as few times as possible. Instead of clearing your throat, hold your breath and swallow.
Find the Cause of Chronic Throat Clearing at Excel ENT of Alabama
Our Speech-Language Pathologist, Amy Pittman, is an expert at working with patients to find the cause of chronic throat clearing and treating the underlying condition. Schedule an appointment online, or call to discuss coming in at a time that’s best for you: 205-988-6858.