White spots on the throat usually have one of two origins: the tonsils, or a disease. Although the discoloration can be disconcerting and (depending on cause) the accompanying symptoms distressing, the situation is rarely dangerous or life-threatening. There is a relatively small list of causes for white spots on the throat as compared to other kinds of problems, though there are many overlapping symptoms between them.
Staying aware of the signals your body is sending alongside the white spots can help you and your doctor work towards the correct diagnoses. Only when you have identified the underlying cause can you find out how to treat the throat and remedy those white spots, after all. Now then, let’s explore this matter in detail—you won’t even need to open wide.
Causes of White Spots on the Throat
As mentioned, when looking for what causes white spots on the throat, your culprits will more often than not involve either the tonsils or a disease. The tonsils are a set of lymph nodes in the back of the throat that help trap invaders and generally keep unpleasant entities from slipping further into the body. This can, however, have consequences of its own, as you will see.
This is the catch-all term for an infection of the tonsils, which isn’t the most surprising result when you spend all day capturing debris and pathogens. The white spots in tonsillitis come from the pus that forms as the infection is fought off. Other symptoms will include a fever, sore throat, possible headache, difficulty and/or pain when swallowing, and in some cases the lymph nodes at the side of the neck will swell.
Tonsil Stones (Tonsillolith)
Your tonsils are not a single, solid mass and are made up of various crevices, tunnels, and other small spaces. Although the body tries to keep this area clean, it doesn’t always work out that way, and various types of debris (dead cells, mucus, saliva, food, etc.) can wind up getting trapped. With time, this debris can build up and calcify into what is known as a tonsil stone. The stones can appear repeatedly and are more common in people with poor dental hygiene and/or large tonsils, though anyone can potentially develop a stone. Symptoms of a tonsil stone include swollen tonsils, yellow or white objects (the stone) on the tonsils, ear pain, sore throat, difficulty swallowing, and chronically bad breath. It is worth noting that small tonsil stones don’t always produce symptoms and are actually more common than the larger type.
Thrush is the name given to oral fungal infections by Candida yeast. These yeasts are normally present in the skin or interior of the mouth but rarely cause problems. If the environment of the mouth significantly changes, however, Candida can be allowed to proliferate wildly and the result is a thrush infection. Circumstances that can lead to thrush include a weakened immune system, diabetes, dentures, steroids, or the use of broad-spectrum antibiotics. The most common symptom is white patches appearing on the tongue or inside of the cheeks, but these white spots can be on the throat as well if the infection spreads far enough. Other symptoms include difficulty swallowing, redness and soreness, and something called angular cheilitis, which is when the corners of the mouth become cracked and potentially inflamed or crusty.
Strep throat is caused by a type of Streptococcus bacteria and is most commonly found in children between ages 5 and 15, though people of any age can contract the disease. As with tonsillitis, strep throat will cause white spots in the throat as the tonsils secrete pus to try and contain the pathogens. Other symptoms include a sore, red throat; headache; sudden fever; loss of appetite; swollen lymph nodes in the neck; and difficulty and/or pain when swallowing.
Mono is the result of infection by the Epstein-Barr virus, which can be spread by saliva. It is more common in teens and children since most adults have already been exposed and developed antibodies at some point in their life. Symptoms will include fatigue, a sore throat, fever, swollen tonsils, possibly swollen neck lymph nodes, headache, and white streaks in the throat (pus). In rare cases, mononucleosis can lead to complications involving a swollen spleen.
A leukoplakia is a type of hardened white patch that can form inside the mouth, often around the cheeks, gums, or on the tongue. Tobacco use (chewing, smoking, or smokeless) is the main cause of leukoplakia even if the governing mechanism isn’t known. Stopping tobacco use is also the main way to get rid of the patches. The primary way to tell leukoplakia apart from other types of white spots in the mouth or throat is to try and rub the marks away. Unlike the pus from an infection or a fungal growth, leukoplakia is the result of actual skin changes and will stay put. Although more of an annoyance than anything else, some leukoplakia can show precancerous changes and warrant removal.
How to Treat White Spots on the Throat
Like with any symptom, identifying the underlying cause is the best way to treat those white spots in your throat, especially since your main problem isn’t going to be the spots themselves. Potential treatment for a white spot in the throat can take several forms:
- Laser or physical removal (tonsil stone or leukoplakia)
- Antibiotic or antifungal medication
- Tonsillectomy (removal of the tonsils, not as common as it used to be but still done in certain cases)
- Maintaining proper dental hygiene and brushing habits
- Warm liquids to soothe the throat
- Gargling a salt water mixture (1/2 tsp salt to 1 cup lukewarm water)
- Rest and recovery time