Acid Reflux / GERD Ear, Nose and Throat

What can cause frequent throat clearing?

Most people clear their throat from time to time. Sometimes, it is in response to irritants, other times it is just a habit. However, frequent throat clearing may be due to a medical condition.

A person may clear their throat often because it feels like something is tickling or stuck in the throat. These sensations can occur even when nothing is there.

Throat clearing itself is not a medical condition, but it can be a symptom of one.

In this article, we explore some possible causes of frequent throat clearing. We also describe when to see a doctor and general treatment options.

Postnasal drip

Woman holding hand in front of mouth coughing or clearing throat
Chronic throat clearing may indicate an underlying medical condition.

The sinuses, throat, and nose all produce mucus that a person usually swallows unconsciously. When mucus starts to build up or trickle down the back of the throat, the medical name for this is postnasal drip.

Causes of postnasal drip include infections, allergies, and acid reflux. A person may also notice additional symptoms, such as:

Treatment

Treating the cause of postnasal drip is the best way to reduce throat clearing and other symptoms. Treatment options may include:

  • antihistamine medications for sinus and nasal allergies
  • antibiotics for bacterial infections
  • antacids, H2 receptor blockers, and proton pump inhibitors for acid reflux

Other tips for relieving postnasal drip can include staying hydrated and using decongestants, nasal sprays, and saline irrigation methods.

Acid reflux

A specific type of reflux called laryngopharyngeal reflux (LPR), also known as silent reflux, often causes frequent throat clearing.

LPR involves acid from the stomach flowing back up the esophagus and into the larynx and pharynx, leading to throat irritation.

According to a 2013 review, up to 60 percent of people with gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) develop symptoms of LPR.

Additional symptoms of LPR can include:

  • hoarseness
  • trouble swallowing
  • a sore throat

Treatment

Treatment for LPR is the same as that for GERD and includes medications such as antacids, H2 receptor blockers, and proton pump inhibitors.

Lifestyle interventions are also an important part of managing a person’s symptoms. These include:

  • maintaining a healthy weight
  • quitting tobacco product use
  • avoiding foods that trigger symptoms
  • limiting alcohol intake

Nasal allergies

Allergies occur when the body’s immune system overreacts to the presence of substances, called allergens, that are usually harmless.

Common causes of nasal allergies include pollen, dust, and animal dander.

Nasal allergies can lead to excess mucus production, which can cause frequent throat clearing.

Other symptoms of throat allergies include:

  • a blocked or runny nose
  • itchy or watery eyes
  • sneezing

Treatment

Among a range of treatment options for nasal allergies are:

  • antihistamines
  • corticosteroid intranasal sprays
  • decongestants
  • allergy shots, which can help build a tolerance to a specific allergen

Also, a person can reduce or prevent their symptoms by avoiding known allergens.

Swallowing problems

Swallowing problems can cause coughing and choking.
Swallowing problems can cause coughing and choking.

Swallowing problems can result from neurological issues or structural abnormalities inside the body. Difficulty swallowing can also lead to throat irritation and frequent throat clearing.

If a person has trouble swallowing, they may also experience:

  • hoarseness
  • coughing
  • heartburn
  • choking when eating

Treatment

Treatment for difficulty swallowing depends on the cause but may include speech therapy.

Medication

Doctors commonly prescribe angiotensin converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors to treat high blood pressure.

These drugs can cause nasal congestion and postnasal drip, and a person may respond by clearing their throat frequently.

Currently, no studies have indicated whether throat clearing is a common side effect of ACE inhibitor use.

However, research suggests that up to 15 percent of people who take these medications develop a chronic cough. The underlying cause of the cough can lead to nasal congestion, postnasal drip, and frequent throat clearing.

Treatment

Anyone who experiences a concerning or bothersome side effect of a medication should speak with their doctor, who may suggest changing the dosage or switching treatments.

Tic disorders

Tics are sudden and repetitive twitches, sounds, or movements that the person cannot control.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are three main types of tic disorder:

  • persistent vocal or motor tic disorder
  • provisional tic disorder
  • Tourette’s syndrome

According to a 2015 study, throat clearing is one of the five most common symptoms of tic disorders. Their cause is unclear, but these disorders appear to run in families and occur more often in males.

Other symptoms of tic disorders can vary greatly, but may include:

  • frequent blinking
  • head jerking
  • word or sound repetition
  • snapping with the fingers

Treatment

Treatment depends on the type of disorder and the severity of a person’s symptoms, but medications and behavioral therapy can often help.

Vocal cord growths

When abnormal growths — such as polyps, nodules, or cysts — grow on the vocal cords, it can feel as if something is stuck in the back of the throat. Causes of these growths can include:

  • tobacco smoking
  • allergies
  • overusing or straining the vocal cords, such as from excessive singing or shouting
  • frequent or strenuous coughing
  • GERD

Symptoms of growths in the vocal cords can also include:

  • hoarseness
  • a scratchy voice
  • breathlessness
  • pain when speaking

Treatment

First, a doctor usually treats the underlying cause of the growths. They may later recommend surgical removal of a growth that is large or does not respond to treatments. Some people require speech therapy.

When to see a doctor

A person should speak to a doctor if throat clearing is accompanied by other symptoms.
A person should speak to a doctor if throat clearing is accompanied by other symptoms.

If frequent throat clearing is causing concern or discomfort, a doctor can often help.

Seek medical attention if frequent throat clearing accompanies:

  • a feeling that something is stuck in the throat
  • chronic coughing
  • heartburn
  • taking a new medication

The doctor will ask for a medical history and perform a physical exam to determine the symptom’s cause. Diagnosing this is the first step toward appropriate treatment.

General treatment

Throat clearing usually only requires treatment if it is becoming bothersome or causing discomfort. The best way to reduce or prevent the symptom is to address any underlying causes.

Some treatment and prevention tips for frequent throat clearing include:

  • drinking plenty of water to keep the throat moist, which may relieve or lessen the feeling that something is lodged in the throat
  • sucking on hard candies
  • eating and chewing slowly if a person has difficulty swallowing
  • using a humidifier at home or at work to keep the air moist, which may help reduce throat irritation
  • trying to clear the throat gently and infrequently to avoid hurting the vocal cords

Summary

Throat clearing is a natural response to irritation in the area or a feeling that something is stuck in the back of the throat. It can also be a conscious or unconscious habit.

Frequent throat clearing can sometimes signal an underlying health issue. Some possible causes include nasal allergies, acid reflux, vocal cord growths, and tic disorders.

If symptoms are persistent or bothersome, seeing a doctor can help. While treatments depend on the underlying cause, drinking plenty of fluids and sucking on hard candies may provide some relief.

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