When Your Cold is Not a Cold


In our current age of economic recession and flu epidemics, experiencing hoarseness or a sore throat can conjure up worst-case scenarios. What I’ve noticed in more recent months is that more and more people with these two symptoms are coming in concerned about throat or lung cancer. If you feel a lump in your throat, the word lump itself can cause feelings of stress or anxiety. If you’re a smoker or a past smoker, the situation is even worse. 

The other day a man came in complaining of an itchy, scratchy throat 4 days prior, with loss of his voice the next day. He didn’t have any other viral symptoms such as fever, chills, or muscle aches. Upon further questioning, he normally eats dinner early, but the night before all this happened, he went out to eat dinner late and also had some drinks. 


Here’s the explanation to the sequence: Because of his upper airway anatomy, he was predisposed to acid reflux at night due to occasional obstructions and arousals. I talk about who may be predisposed and why this occurs in my book, Sleep, Interrupted. During an obstruction, vacuum forces can suction up small amounts of stomach juices into the throat, leading to various throat symptoms such as scratchiness, pain, hoarseness, post-nasal drip, lump sensation, and chronic cough. More often than not, doctors will give oral antibiotics in this situation, "just in case."


Many typical "colds" start of  with a scratchy or sore throat, with no other viral symptoms. Later, it can "travel" up into the nose and sinuses, leading to nasal congestion and sinusitis. What’s happening here is that there was an initial episode of acid reflux, which first irritates the throat, leading to more swelling and congestion, aggravating the vicious cycle. It’s also been shown that your normal stomach contents (acid, bile, digestive enzymes, bacteria) can travel up into your nose and ears. Chronic inflammation can predispose any part of the body to true viral or bacterial infections. 


The typical fevers, chills and sweats that are seen in this situation may suggest a viral infection, but you can also have all these symptoms from an involuntary nervous system reaction, which is called vasomotor symptoms. This happens when your involuntary nervous system becomes imbalanced due to a sudden change in your sleep-breathing status. 


Even if you start off with allergies or a runny nose from a cold, eventually, the tongue will collapse more and perpetuate this vicious cycle.


So the next time you have a sore throat and are convinced that you have an infection, think again. In many cases, you’ll find that either you must have eaten late or drank alcohol the previous night. If not, then you may have a true cold. But since it’s been shown that having colored nasal mucous of throat phlegm does not necessarily mean you have a bacterial infection, things are not always what it seems.


How do your typical "colds" begin? I’d like to know.


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