Throat clearing might be the sound of you trying to get someone’s attention or even a nervous habit, but when it’s constant, it could indicate chronic throat clearing. It’s a problem that’s usually accompanied by symptoms like a throat tickle, dry cough, and/or a “lump in the throat” sensation.
You might need to clear your throat a few times per day, a few times per minute, or maybe only after meals. The causes and frequency of throat clearing really differ from person to person, but if it becomes persistent, you may require a medical examination.
It’s also important to find out what’s causing you to clear your throat, since it often indicates an underlying condition, and over time can damage your vocal cords.
Whether you experience throat clearing in the morning or throat clearing constantly, read on to find out more about the common causes, throat clearing, and hoarseness treatments, and also when it’s time to see a doctor about your throat clearing.
Understanding the Causes of Throat Clearing
Usually, chronic throat clearing is triggered by hypersensitivity in the larynx (voice box), and pharynx (throat). Your body responds to this irritation (and tries to remove it) by rubbing your vocal folds (vocal cords) together. The harsh contact caused by this constant “ahem-ing” often irritates the vocal cords more and results in a cycle of frequent persistent throat clearing.
There are various possible causes of chronic throat clearing, and this is usually determined by a medical evaluation. This isn’t a diagnosis alone but usually a symptom of another underlying condition. Here are the most common causes.
1. Acid Reflux
Many people who experience chronic throat clearing have a disorder called laryngopharyngeal reflux (LPR). This occurs when both acidic and non-acidic stomach matter travels up to the throat region and causes an uncomfortable sensation, making you clear your throat. And interestingly, although acid reflux is the likely cause of throat clearing, most people who have LPR don’t experience other reflux symptoms like heartburn and indigestion.
However additional symptoms of LPR include:
- Trouble swallowing
- A sore throat
2. Postnasal Drip
Another possible cause of your throat clearing is postnasal drip – which happens when your body produces excess mucus. You may feel it dripping from the back of your nose down your throat.
Other symptoms of this could include:
- A cough that worsens at night
- Nausea – this could be from the excess mucus moving into your stomach
- A sore, scratchy throat
- Bad breath
Allergies often cause postnasal drip, other causes include:
- A deviated septum
- Viral infections – that can lead to flu and colds
- Cold temperatures
- Sinus infections
- Changes in the weather
- Dry air
- Eating spicy food
- Side effects of certain medication
3. Zenker’s Diverticulum
Although rare, sometimes the esophagus has an abnormal pouch, preventing food from traveling to the stomach. This condition is known as Zenker’s diverticulum, and it is another one of the most common throat-clearing causes. Zenker’s diverticulum occasionally causes the contents of the pouch and mucus to get stuck in the throat, resulting in that niggling sensation in your throat.
4. Tic Disorders
Tics are sudden and repetitive twitches, sounds, or movements that a person can’t control. And according to a study, throat clearing is one of the five most common symptoms of tic disorders. While the cause is unclear, they appear to run in families, and occur more in males than in females.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says there are three main types of tic disorders:
- Persistent (chronic) vocal or motor tic disorder
- Provisional tic disorder
- Tourette’s syndrome
Other symptoms of tic disorders vary greatly but may include:
- Frequent blinking, twitching, or shrugging
- Head jerking or facial grimacing
- Word or sound repetition, like grunts or moans
- Snapping fingers
- Sudden uncontrollable movements of the legs, arms, or body
Both food and nasal allergies can cause a tickling in your throat. When it comes to food allergies and throat-clearing causes, dairy is the most common culprit – however, foods like rice, eggs, and soy may also cause the sensation.
While common environmental allergens like pollen, dust, and animal dander can cause nasal allergies to flare up, leading to excess mucus production, which could be the cause of your frequent throat clearing.
Other symptoms of throat/nasal allergies include:
- Blocked or runny nose
- Watery or itchy eyes
- Frequent sneezing
6. Vocal Cord Growths
When abnormal growths – like nodules, cysts, or polyps – grow on the vocal cords, you might feel like there’s something unusual in the back of your throat. If you’re not sure it’s a physical growth, you will likely try to clear your throat to get rid of this sensation.
Common causes of these growths include:
- Smoking tobacco
- Strain on your vocal cords – like from excessive singing or shouting
- Frequent or strenuous coughing
And, besides throat clearing, other symptoms of these growths may also include:
- Pain when speaking
- Scratchy voice
Some people might have the urge to clear their throats more after eating meals. This may be because some food gets stuck in the throat and creates a small obstruction, which leads to frequent throat clearing.
Eating certain foods may also worsen several of the other conditions mentioned here. For instance, a person could have an allergic reaction to something they ate, which results in throat irritation. In addition, spicy foods could worsen existing postnasal drip symptoms.
Other conditions like Zenker’s diverticulum also stop food from passing through the esophagus like normal.
8. Swallowing Problems
Having difficulty swallowing could be because of neurological issues or structural abnormalities inside the body. It could also be the result of severe acid reflux.
Swallowing issues could lead to throat irritation and frequent throat clearing. Someone who experiences this may also have these symptoms:
- Choking when eating
9. Medication Side Effects
Some blood pressure medication has been known to cause a tickle in your throat, which contributes to you clearing it so frequently. If you’re taking blood pressure medication and are experiencing chronic throat clearing, you should talk to your doctor about potential substitutes.
In some cases, there is no underlying condition causing you to clear your throat. And in fact, it’s just a habit or something you do subconsciously when stressed out or anxious.
These techniques could help you to stop the habit:
- Drink enough fluids
- Keep an eye on your throat-clearing habit or ask someone else to help you monitor it
- Get an alternative activity, like swallowing or tapping your fingers
How to Treat Constant Throat Clearing & Hoarseness
When it comes to treating chronic throat clearing, it depends entirely on identifying what underlying condition is causing it. Treatment ranges from lifestyle changes, altering or taking new medication, and in some cases, even surgery.
So here are the most common treatments for the most common causes of chronic throat clearing:
- Acid reflux: Treatment options may include medication, lifestyle changes, and surgery in some severe cases.
- Postnasal drip: Treatment options depend on the cause, if it’s allergy related, avoiding the allergen or taking medications may stop the drip. However, some over-the-counter decongestants, antihistamines, and saline nasal sprays could help.
- Zenker’s diverticulum: The treatment for this usually involves surgery.
- Tic disorders: This usually depends on the type of disorder and severity of symptoms, but usually medication and behavioral therapy help.
- Allergies: If symptoms are caused by food allergies, then avoiding the allergen is the best course of action. And if nasal allergies are the cause, then antihistamines, corticosteroid intranasal sprays, and saline nasal sprays will help alleviate symptoms – along with also avoiding the allergen.
- Vocal cord growth: Firstly a doctor will treat the underlying cause of the growth, and may later recommend the surgical removal of a growth that’s large or won’t respond to treatments. In some cases, patients may need to work with a speech-language pathologist.
- Food: If you’re clearing your throat regularly after eating, small habit changes may help like – chewing food more thoroughly or introducing softer (even liquid-based) meals into your diet.
- Swallowing problems: The treatment for difficulty swallowing depends on the cause – options to remedy the problem include: speech therapy, surgery to widen the esophagus, and eating a liquid diet.
If you notice yourself clearing your throat more often you can try some simple home remedies. Whenever you feel the urge to clear your throat, try one of these techniques instead:
- Sip some water
- Suck on sugar-free candy, like throat lozenges
- Swallow twice
When to See a Doctor About Throat Clearing
There are so many possible causes of chronic throat clearing, it should be determined by a medical evaluation. These causes could include acid reflux irritation, postnasal drip, allergies, or even side effects from medication.
Diagnosis may begin with your family physician or allergist. And if typical treatments for allergies or reflux aren’t working to clear your throat clearing up, then your GP will likely refer you to an ear, nose and throat physician (ENT), and even a speech-language pathologist to help determine the cause and lay out a comprehensive and appropriate treatment plan for your throat clearing.