A tight feeling in the throat can be a worrying sensation if it arises suddenly and is severe enough to restrict swallowing or breathing. This can sometimes be due to serious conditions like certain types of allergic reactions which could be life threatening. However, most people experience a gradual tightness in the throat and despite the discomfort or even pain when swallowing, it is not usually severe to the point that it restricts breathing.
Tight Feeling in the Throat
The throat is a a tube-like structure that connects the nose and mouth with the lower airways and esophagus (foodpipes), respectively. It therefore allows for air, food and fluids to move through it. A small flap known as the epiglottis prevents food and fluid from entering the airways. The process of swallowing ensures that muscles carry food and fluids from the mouth, down the esophagus and into the stomach.
A tight feeling usually means that there is some obstruction in the throat. This can be due to external or internal factors. Apart from the discomfort, swallowing can be affected with even a minor obstruction. When the obstruction is more severe, then the movement of air when breathing can be affected. Usually the degree of the the tightness indicates the severity of the obstruction in the throat.
Read more on swollen throat.
Other Signs and Symptoms
A tight feeling in the throat is a symptom on its own. It is a type of discomfort and may also be accompanied by a host of other signs and symptoms, such as:
- Throat pain or burning sensation
- Itchy throat sensation
- Dry throat
- Difficulty swallowing
- Breathing problems
- Change in voice like hoarseness
- Redness of the throat
- Unusual tastes
Any throat problem where there is difficulty breathing and other symptoms like dizziness should be investigated immediately. It could be due to serious and even life threatening conditions that require immediate medical attention.
Causes of Throat Tightness
The throat, also known as the pharynx, has three parts – nasopharynx, oropharyx and laryngopharynx. Problems at any of these parts can cause a tight feeling in the throat but more often it affects the lower part of the throat where it meets with the voice box (also known as the laryngopharynx). Sometimes the problem is not in the pharynx itself but around the throat and even from the exterior of the throat.
Injury to the Throat
A tight collar or neck tie, jewellery or some other object can also cause compression of the throat and obstruct movement through the throat. This may cause a feeling of tightness in the throat. If not removed as soon as possible, it can causes injury to the throat and surrounding tissue. The feeling of tightness may then persist even after the object has been removed.
Throat infections are a common cause of swelling of the throat. When the throat walls become swollen then the throat cavity becomes narrowed. This swelling is due to inflammation of the throat (pharyngitis) and is commonly referred to as a sore throat due to the associated discomfort and pain. These infections are usually due to viruses or bacteria and may also involve the tonsils (tonsillitis). Collectively it is known as tonsillopharyngitis.
Throat inflammation can also occur for other non-infectious reasons. A common but often overlooked cause is gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), also known as acid reflux. This is where the acidic stomach contents rise up the esophagus and causes irritation of the throat. This is also known as reflux pharyngitis. Other symptoms may include heartburn and nausea. It is one of the causes of a sore throat that tends to be worse in the morning.
Read more on reflux pharyngitis.
The nose, throat and airways are commonly affected areas in allergies particularly when the allergen is inhaled. Allergens are harmless substances that trigger abnormal immune activity in people who have allergies. Dust, mold and pollen are common inhaled allergens but sometimes certain foods can trigger allergic reactions.
One type of severe allergic reaction is known as anaphylaxis. This is triggered by certain foods and drugs in some hypersensitive people. It can cause rapid throat swelling and this may be severe enough to eventually lead to death without prompt medical treatment.
Post Nasal Drip
Post nasal drip is where excessive mucus draining from the nose irritates the throat. This can cause an itchy sensation in the throat, a sore throat and cough. Sometimes this discomfort in the throat may be perceived as a tight sensation. Post nasal drip is common with upper respiratory tract infections and allergies. It may be aggravated by environmental and lifestyle factors, such as cold weather or cigarette smoking.
Enlarged Thyroid Gland
The thyroid gland is located in front of the throat. When enlarged, it can press on the throat and cause a feeling of tightness in the throat. This enlargement of the thyroid gland is known as a goiter. A large goiter can cause problems with swallowing and even breathing. This enlargement may occur with various types of thyroid diseases. Sometimes the thyroid may still function normally despite the the enlargement while at other times it may be underactive or overactive.
Tumors can occur in and around the throat (pharynx). These growths may be benign (non-cancerous) or malignant (cancerous). It is the latter, throat cancer, that is of greater concern. Throat cancer is a common type of cancer among tobacco smokers. It has also been linked to excessive alcohol use, chronic acid reflux and certain sexually transitted viruses. Throat cancer may also involve the voice box (larynx) and the flap known as the epiglottis.
Sometimes the feeling of tightness in the throat occurs without any physical abnormality. This may be due to psychological factors. It is not uncommon for this feeling to arise with anxiety, nervousness and fear. Hence the reference to “lump in the throat” during episodes of psychological stress. However, a tight throat feeling should not be assumed to be psychogenic unless physical causes have been excluded and the sensation only arises with strong emotions.