Difference Between a Common Sore Throat, Strep, and Tonsillitis

Your aching throat tells you that you might be coming down with something – but what is it? It could be a sign of an oncoming cold, or it may be an infection such as strep or the inflammation of tonsillitis. Although often used interchangeably, these conditions are not the same; read on for some ways to differentiate between them.

A sore throat is a fairly vague symptom on its own, but when people say they have one, it’s often a sign of the common cold. When accompanied by other symptoms, such as a congested or runny nose, coughing and sneezing, head or body aches, and a fever, it’s a good bet that the pain in your throat means you have a cold. In these cases, the soreness will usually fade within the first two or three days of sickness. Because a cold is caused by a virus, there’s no treatment for the infection itself, although you can take medicine and other at-home treatments to relieve your symptoms.

Strep throat is a bacterial infection, short for the streptococcus bacteria that causes it. A sore throat caused by strep feels more severe than a cold sore throat, comes on more suddenly, and lasts much longer. Rather than being accompanied by cold symptoms, it often comes with symptoms like painful swallowing, loss of appetite, and white spots that appear on swollen tonsils; a fever may also occur. Unlike viral infections, strep can be treated with antibiotics, and it’s important to seek treatment because it can have more serious side effects and cause other conditions like rheumatic fever. A strep test administered by your doctor can help you determine if you have strep or a different infection.

Tonsillitis is a general term for inflammation of the tonsils, the tissue located at the back of the throat and meant to help fight infection. This inflammation can occur as result of either bacterial or viral infection, so you may need a test to determine the cause, although you should take into account the symptoms above: if you also have nasal symptoms, it’s likely a cold, and if  you see white or yellow spots, it can be a sign of strep. Repeated cases of tonsillitis may require further treatment, such as a tonsillectomy.


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