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What Is the Difference Between Tonsillitis and Strep Throat?

Everyone gets a sore throat now and then, but what is the cause of your sore throat? Sore throats can be caused by a variety of reasons, with two of the most common being tonsillitis and strep throat. While these two conditions share a lot of commonalities, there are distinctions between them. For one, strep throat is a kind of tonsillitis, meaning it’s a more specific condition than the more general tonsillitis diagnosis. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the differences between the two and what you need for treatment if you have one of them.

Understanding Strep Throat

Strep throat is a common bacterial infection that affects the throat and tonsils. It is caused by the streptococcus bacteria, specifically group A Streptococcus bacteria. It is a highly contagious infection that can easily be spread from person to person. As mentioned, strep is a form of tonsillitis. This means you always have tonsillitis if you have strep throat, but you may not have strep throat if you have tonsillitis. You only have strep if you have the aforementioned group A Streptococcus bacteria as the cause of your infection. Regardless, strep throat should be treated right away as it can lead to complications if left untreated.

What Are the Causes of Strep Throat?

Strep throat is caused by a specific type of bacteria called group A streptococcus. This bacteria can easily spread through respiratory droplets from coughing or sneezing. So it’s best to keep your distance if you or someone you know has strep. It can also be spread through sharing utensils or drinks with an infected person.

Factors such as poor hygiene and close contact with infected individuals can increase your risk of contracting strep throat. Make sure to wash your hands frequently to reduce your risk, especially if you’ve been around someone who has been diagnosed.

What Are the Symptoms of Strep Throat?

Strep throat can present a variety of symptoms. The common symptoms include:

  • Sore throat
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Swollen lymph nodes in the neck
  • Fever
  • Headaches
  • Body aches
  • Red spots on the back of the throat
  • Nausea or vomiting

If you're experiencing these symptoms, especially with a high fever, it's essential to seek medical attention for a proper diagnosis and treatment.

Understanding Tonsillitis

Tonsillitis is another common throat infection that affects the tonsils, which are the two oval-shaped glands located at the back of the throat. The streptococcus bacteria is one of the most common causes of tonsillitis, but it isn’t the only one. With that in mind, let’s take a deeper dive into the causes and symptoms of tonsillitis to help us understand it better.

What Are the Causes of Tonsillitis?

Tonsillitis can be caused by the streptococcus bacteria but unlike strep throat, it can also be caused by a variety of other bacteria or viruses.

Depending on the type of tonsillitis you have, it can be highly contagious. It’s important to avoid close contact with infected people to reduce the risk of spreading it. Viral and bacterial variants of tonsillitis can be spread through respiratory droplets or by sharing utensils and drinks with an infected person.

What Are the Symptoms of Tonsilitis?

Tonsillitis can present with a range of symptoms that can be similar to those of strep throat. If it’s a form of tonsillitis that isn’t strep, it may present slightly different symptoms. Some common symptoms of tonsillitis include:

  • Sore throat
  • Swollen tonsils
  • Swollen, tender lymph nodes in the neck
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Redness in the tonsils
  • Fever
  • Upset stomach
  • Stiff neck
  • Headaches

If you are experiencing these symptoms, it is important to consult a health care professional for a proper diagnosis and appropriate treatment.

How Are Strep Throat and Tonsilitis Different?

Tonsillitis and strep throat technically aren’t different because strep throat is a form of tonsillitis. However, tonsillitis is different from strep throat.

The key distinction between the two is the cause of the infection. If the cause of your tonsillitis is the streptococcus bacteria, specifically group A streptococcus, then you have strep throat. If your tonsillitis is caused by any other virus or bacteria, then it isn’t strep throat. The treatment options between the two may also differ slightly, with strep typically being treated with a round of antibiotics. This can be a viable treatment for tonsillitis as well if the cause is bacterial.

Understanding these differences can help you determine which condition you might be dealing with and guide you and your health care provider toward the appropriate treatment.

When To Seek Medical Attention

If you are experiencing symptoms of a sore throat, it's important to know when to seek medical attention. Tonsillitis can sometimes resolve on their own, but it’s often best to speak with a medical professional. If the infection gets more serious and is left untreated, you can run into complications.

If your sore throat symptoms persist for a few days or worsen, then you should make an appointment with your primary care provider as soon as possible. Any symptoms like high fever, severe headaches or swollen lymph nodes are also signals that it’s time to get a proper diagnosis and treatment. It's always better to be safe than sorry when it comes to your health.

Diagnosis and Treatment Options

Whether you have strep throat or tonsillitis, you will need to speak with a health care provider for a diagnosis and appropriate treatment.

Diagnosis of both strep and tonsillitis will likely begin with a physical exam and questions about your symptoms. Typically, they will also perform a throat swab to identify the virus or bacteria causing your infection. Once a diagnosis is confirmed, then your health care provider can determine the right treatment option.

Strep throat can usually be cleared up with a round of antibiotics that will clear the infection while also alleviating symptoms in the short term. It’s important to finish the course of antibiotics as instructed by your health care provider, even if you’re feeling better. You want to make sure to rid your body of the infection completely.

Tonsillitis may also require antibiotics if the cause is bacterial, though you may have to wait for it to resolve on its own if the infection is viral. Home remedies such as gargling warm salt water, using throat lozenges and taking over-the-counter pain relievers may help to alleviate symptoms in the meantime. If you have severe or recurrent tonsil infections, your health care provider may also recommend surgical removal of your tonsils to prevent further infections. In short, Your health care provider will be able to guide you in determining the best treatment approach for your specific situation.

Book an appointment with a Circle Medical telehealth provider today!

If you’re experiencing sore throat symptoms, you should make an appointment with a primary care provider. Circle Medical is here to help! Circle Medical is a full-stack primary care clinic that offers both in-person and online primary. Make a same-day online appointment with one of our telehealth providers to get started on your health journey today!

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