Having pain in throat on one side when swallowing? Here’s what you need to know

In Diagnosis & Treatment by Dr. Clinton Osborn

Swallowing is a natural process for our body system. However, if you experience pain on one side of the throat when you swallow, that may indicate an underlying issue. This can be caused by various problems like a swollen lymph node or an abscess. It can be frightening, so if the pain lasts for more than a couple of days, it’s best to see a doctor. Fortunately, we have some insight into what could be the issue and ways to treat it.
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Anatomy of the throat

Before we dive into the causes of unilateral throat pain during the swallowing process, let’s examine the anatomy of the throat to get a better understanding. The process of swallowing involves three segments of the body, which includes the mouth, larynx and epiglottis, and esophagus. Unilateral pain when swallowing often occurs in these segments.

Common causes and treatment

If you experience the symptoms of pain on one side of your throat, here are some potential causes and treatments to keep in mind.

Postnasal drip

Whenever you get a viral infection, allergies, or reflux, your body produces thick mucus and saliva to trap and get rid of these agents. However, excess saliva and mucus can get stuck in the back of your throat, which can irritate the lining of the mucosa. When we swallow, it further aggravates the lining of the throat. The best treatment for post nasal drip would be to keep yourself well hydrated and to take decongestant or allergy medications.


GERD stands for Gastroesophageal reflux disease. This occurs when the stomach acid travels upward towards the chest and throat. This will lead to a painful burning sensation on your chest and throat. The best treatment for GERD would be over the counter medication that decreases acid in your stomach, such as Prilosec or dietary and lifestyle modification.

Swollen Lymph Node

There are lymph nodes that run between your head and neck. If you have a viral or bacterial infection, it can lead to inflammation of the lymph node, therefore, resulting in swelling and pain. This can cause unilateral pain when you swallow, especially if you have the swollen lymph node on one side. If your swollen lymph node is caused by bacterial infection, then it’s best to see a doctor for antibiotic medication. If this is from viral infection, then symptomatic treatment would be the proper strategy.


If you continuously use your voice without giving it a break, it could put a strain on your vocal cords. This is known as laryngitis, which is the swelling and inflammation of the larynx. With laryngitis, you can experience symptoms of hoarseness, discomfort, and one-sided pain in your throat when you swallow. Keep in mind that viral and bacterial infection can also cause laryngitis. Treatment of laryngitis depends on the underlying cause. If it’s due to a viral infection, then rest and hydration are the treatment of choice. Bacterial infection will require antibiotic medication. However, if this is due to the straining of your vocal cords, then expect to take a break from using your voice.


Tonsillitis is the inflammation or swelling of the tonsils. This is often caused by a viral or bacterial infection. The treatment of choice depends on the causative agent. If it’s bacterial, then a prescription antibiotic is required, but if this is due to viral infection, then symptomatic treatment should be initiated. You can also gargle saltwater, take an over-the-counter pain reliever, and use a humidifier.

Canker sore

If you have an ulcer in your throat, it can lead to painful swallowing on one side of your throat, depending on where the ulcer/canker sores located. This is often caused by mouth trauma, bacteria, stress, diet problems, and other issues. Canker sores usually go away on their own, but there are different ways to medicate it with oral/topical medication or mouth rinsing.

Abscess on tooth

Poor dental hygiene, wisdom teeth, or oral infection can lead to cavities and abscess in your teeth. This can result in pain when you swallow. The best treatment strategy would be to see your dentist check on the impacted tooth. Your dentist might perform a root canal or surgically remove a potential wisdom teeth.


This is pain or swelling that is caused by a viral or bacterial infection of the epiglottis. With epiglottitis, you experience pain during swallowing, vocal changes, fever, and high pitched noise when you breathe. The treatment of epiglottitis should emphasize opening up your airway and using antibiotics to treat a bacterial infection or symptomatic relief for viral infection.
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Glossopharyngeal neuralgia

There are plenty of nerves running in your throat, such as the glossopharyngeal nerve. When these nerves are damaged or irritated, it can lead to pain when you swallow. Fortunately, this can be treated with prescription medications such as gabapentin to block the nerve. If the medicine does not work, you may need to consult with your doctor for possible surgery.

Cancer of the oral region

Constant cigarette smoking and GERD often cause mouth, esophagus, and throat cancer. Cancer often manifests as a painful lump that can be very bothersome when you swallow. The proper treatment would include medication, surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy.

When to see a doctor

If you experience symptoms of difficulty swallowing, problems breathing, high fever, and lightheadedness, then it’s best to see a doctor to find the underlying cause. You can also go online and video chat with a doctor and obtain a prescription medication that way. The doctor can discuss your symptoms, initiate a physical exam, order the proper lab test, diagnose the condition, and provide the appropriate treatment plan. Keep in mind that severe symptoms can escalate into something life-threatening so it’s best to see a physician just in case.
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When it comes to one-sided pain when you swallow, there are various causes to consider. It could be reflux, swollen lymph nodes, postnasal drip, tonsillitis, abscess, laryngitis, and much more. If the symptoms persist, definitely see your doctor find the underlying medical problem. Consult your online doctor to see what steps to take next. Once it’s detected, your healthcare provider will be able to initiate the proper medication to treat the problem.
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