‘I’m an MD, and This Is Why Waking Up With a Sore Throat in the Winter Isn’t Always a Cause for Concern’

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A few short years ago, waking up with a sore throat probably didn't send you into a panic. Nowadays, though, that telltale soreness or scratchiness when you swallow could be a major anxiety trigger—especially since there are a number of serious viral illnesses circulating this year, including COVID-19, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), and a particularly intense flu season.

While it is wise to be conscious and cautious when any symptom arises—and it’s always best to talk with a trusted health provider if you have concerns—not all sore throats come from infectious diseases. Sometimes it’s just the cold winter air wreaking havoc on your throat.

Experts In This Article
  • Ali Alhassani, MD, board-certified pediatrician and head of clinical at Summer Health

Of course, if you are sick, rapid COVID testing, wearing a mask, and washing your hands are all excellent ways to prevent the spread of illness to other people in your home, at work, or in your community.

But if you keep waking up with a sore throat without feeling sick, it’s a good idea to keep these non-contagious health issues on your radar, says Ali Alhassani, MD, a board-certified pediatrician and the head of clinical at Summer Health, a text-based pediatric health service. You might just save yourself from some needless worry.

Besides illness, what can cause you to have a sore throat when you wake up?

There are three big irritants that can cause a sore throat in the morning, and they include dryness, excess mucus running down the throat, and stomach acid coming up from the stomach, Dr. Alhassani explains. Here’s why you might experience more of those things in the winter months.

1. Dry air and low humidity

Dryness is one of winter's most offensive holiday gifts, TBH, and is exactly why you might have throat pain upon waking up in the morning. Winter air already has less humidity, meaning lower moisture levels. Add to that your heater sucking any remaining moisture out of the air, and you’re stuck with really dry air that you’re breathing in all night long, which irritates the throat. Think about it: Dry tissue rubbing together as you swallow equals pain.

Another factor? People tend to feel colder in the winter, which means they often drink less water, says Dr. Alhassani—and that only adds to the dry-throat cycle. This may also be why you're waking up with a dry mouth that needs to be relieved with water.

2. Post-nasal drip

Colds and other viruses aren’t the only culprits when it comes to excess mucus. Allergies, unfortunately, also run rampant with seasonal changes. As you kick your heater into high gear, it might rustle up dust and pet dander throughout your home. Cold-weather bedding might also be a haven for dust and dander, as well as seasonal decor that was stored away for a year.

Your furry family members may also go through winter shedding, which can mean even more dander floating around inside your home during the peak of the sitting-on-your-couch season. All of that can add up to more mucus running down your throat as you sleep, which can make it feel extra sore in the morning.

3. Acid reflux or heartburn

If you have acid reflux, you know the backflow of stomach acid can be really irritating to your throat. Certain foods tend to trigger acid reflux—like coffee, spicy food, and alcohol—which are all found in abundance during the holidays. Celebrating with food and drinks is important and special, but you may want to be mindful of this if you find that you’re waking up with a sore throat after indulging in more of these acid-reflux-triggering foods, which you'll probably want to avoid.

Are there ways to prevent or ease a sore throat from these things?

Let's say you're positive that illness is not the root of your morning sore throat. In that case, there are a few tips and tricks you can try to ease or eliminate the pain, says Dr. Alhassani. "If your sore throat is due to postnasal drip or dry air, then you should try to drink plenty of fluids and use nasal saline sprays to clear the mucus where possible,” he says. “Humidifiers and steamy showers can also really help.”

If you have known allergies or acid reflux, you’ll also want to make sure you’re taking your medications. "If the cause is allergic, antihistamine medications or nasal sprays can help reduce symptoms, and if you have reflux, then taking anti-acid medication can be quite helpful," says Dr. Alhassani.

Wiping down your heater (when it’s not super hot), throwing your bedding in for an extra wash, and cleaning any holiday decor can also help get rid of dust allergens and pet dander that may be triggering your post-nasal drip. In any case, if you do wake up with a sore throat this winter, it’s a good idea to take a breather before assuming the worst.

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