How Can I Tell If I Have Tonsillitis Or Strep?

How Can I Tell If I Have Tonsillitis Or Strep

Tonsillitis and strep throat are prevalent contagious throat infections that exhibit similar symptoms. Although they can occasionally result from the same bacteria, they are distinct conditions.

Tonsillitis develops when a virus or bacterium infects the tonsils, the soft tissue masses located at the rear of the throat. Conversely, strep throat is caused by a specific bacterium called Streptococcus, leading to an infection in the throat area, which may also encompass the tonsils.

Both conditions manifest as a sore throat and share several common symptoms. However, the choice of treatment depends on the underlying cause of the infection. This article, presented by TGH Urgent Care powered by Fast Track, offers a comprehensive overview of strep throat and tonsillitis, highlighting their key differences.

Symptoms

Tonsillitis and strep throat exhibit numerous overlapping symptoms. In both cases, a painful sore throat is typically the primary and most noticeable symptom.

Tonsillitis

The symptoms of tonsillitis can vary depending on whether the infection is caused by a virus or bacteria. Generally, most individuals report the following:

  • Sore throat
  • Enlarged, red tonsils that may exhibit a white coating
  • Fever and chills
  • Headache
  • Snoring
  • Pain when swallowing or difficulty in swallowing
  • Swollen lymph nodes on the sides of the neck or in the jaw area
  • Unpleasant breath

Tonsillitis resulting from a viral infection, which is the most prevalent type, may also present additional viral symptoms like a cough, runny nose, hoarseness, and conjunctivitis (pink eye).

Complications of Tonsillitis

Occasionally, the infection can extend beyond the tonsil, infiltrating the surrounding area and giving rise to a painful, swollen sore known as a peritonsillar abscess. If this occurs, you might additionally encounter:

  • Intense throat pain
  • Altered or muffled voice
  • Excessive salivation
  • Difficulty in opening your mouth

Strep Throat

There exist several distinctive indicators of strep throat, such as:

  • A sore throat that may exhibit redness and white patches
  • Fever accompanied by chills
  • Headache
  • Difficulty in swallowing or experiencing pain while doing so
  • Enlarged lymph nodes located in the front of the neck
  • Small red spots (petechiae) on the palate

Complications of Strep Throat

Furthermore, certain individuals may also encounter additional symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting, fatigue, muscle aches, and a general sense of malaise.

When it comes to strep throat, it is crucial to diagnose and promptly treat the infection, as untreated cases can lead to severe complications, including:

Causes

Tonsillitis and strep throat have distinct origins, with various potential causes for tonsillitis and a primary cause for strep throat. Both conditions arise as a result of direct person-to-person contact with the virus or bacterium, provoking an inflammatory response by the body’s immune system.

Tonsillitis:

The majority of tonsillitis cases occur due to exposure to specific viruses. Other instances of tonsillitis are bacterial in nature, often caused by the same bacteria responsible for strep throat. Some of the most common culprits include:

  • Viruses responsible for the common cold
  • Epstein-Barr virus, responsible for mononucleosis (mono)
  • Herpes simplex virus, causing genital herpes and oral herpes
  • Measles virus
  • Group A Streptococcus bacteria, which also leads to strep throat.

Strep Throat:

Strep throat, on the other hand, is predominantly caused by a particular strain of bacteria called group A Streptococcus. This bacterial strain is responsible for various respiratory and skin infections, including strep throat.

Streptococcus can be easily transmitted through contact with the bodily fluids of an infected individual, even in the absence of visible symptoms. This transmission can occur through activities such as:

  • Inhaling bacterial droplets from a cough or sneeze
  • Sharing personal items like silverware or toothbrushes
  • Contact with contaminated surfaces.

It’s worth noting that the bacteria causing strep throat are less commonly transmitted through food or water.

Diagnosis

If you’re experiencing symptoms suggestive of either tonsillitis or a strep throat infection, it is advisable to seek medical attention from a healthcare provider.

The healthcare provider will commence the evaluation by inquiring about your medical history and the symptoms you’ve been experiencing. This preliminary assessment will be followed by a physical examination aimed at identifying signs of infection. Typically, this examination comprises:

  • Examining the back of your throat using an illuminated instrument
  • Inspecting the interior of your ears and nose
  • Gently palpating the lymph nodes, situated on the sides of your neck, to assess any swelling.

Subsequently, a throat culture may be requested to ascertain the presence of Streptococcus bacteria. This procedure entails the use of a lengthy cotton swab to collect saliva and cells from the rear of your throat, which may cause momentary discomfort and trigger your gag reflex for a brief period. The collected sample will then be sent to a laboratory for bacterial detection. The turnaround time for results may vary, ranging from several minutes to a couple of days, contingent upon the specific type of test employed.

Treatment

The recommended course of treatment as advised by your healthcare provider will be contingent upon the underlying cause of the infection.

Tonsillitis:

The treatment for tonsillitis hinges on whether the infection is viral or bacterial:

  • Viral tonsillitis: Management primarily focuses on alleviating symptoms while allowing the infection to naturally resolve, typically within a span of three to 14 days. This entails practices like ensuring sufficient rest, maintaining hydration, gargling with salt water, and utilizing over-the-counter medications such as Tylenol (acetaminophen) or Advil (ibuprofen) to address fever and discomfort.
  • Bacterial tonsillitis: Antibiotics will be prescribed in this case. Alongside antibiotics, recommendations include getting ample rest, staying hydrated, and utilizing over-the-counter medications to alleviate symptoms like pain or fever.
  • Recurrent Tonsillitis: Individuals experiencing chronic (prolonged) or recurrent (frequent recurrence) tonsillitis may be considered for a tonsillectomy. This outpatient procedure entails the surgical removal of the tonsils due to the potential complications arising from recurrent infections.

Strep Throat:

Strep throat, being a bacterial infection, is effectively treated with antibiotics. These prescription medications have the capacity to eradicate or impede bacterial growth. They also significantly reduce the contagious period of strep throat, thereby curbing the transmission of the infection from person to person.

Antibiotics can be administered orally (in pill form) over a duration ranging from five to 14 days or intravenously (via a vein in the arm) in cases of severe infection. Commonly prescribed antibiotics for strep throat include penicillin, amoxicillin, and cephalexin. Alternatives like clindamycin, azithromycin, and clarithromycin may be recommended for individuals allergic to penicillin.

Furthermore, home remedies such as rest, adequate fluid intake, gargling with salt water, using throat lozenges, and utilizing over-the-counter medications for pain or fever can be employed to enhance comfort while antibiotics combat the infection.

Crucially, it is essential to adhere to the prescribed antibiotic regimen for the full duration, even if symptoms improve within a few days. Premature discontinuation of antibiotics can result in the recurrence, exacerbation, or spread of bacterial infections to other parts of the body.

Tonsillitis vs. Strep:

A simplified comparison of the similarities and distinctions between tonsillitis and strep throat is as follows:

Similarities:

  • Manifestation of symptoms like a sore, reddened, and swollen throat
  • Common occurrence in younger age groups
  • Transmission through person-to-person contact

Differences:

  • Tonsillitis can be caused by either viruses or bacteria, whereas strep throat is exclusively provoked by bacteria.
  • Viral tonsillitis is managed with over-the-counter remedies, whereas strep throat necessitates prescription antibiotics.
  • Viral tonsillitis may exhibit viral symptoms like a cough, while strep throat can induce flu-like symptoms such as nausea or vomiting.

When to See a Healthcare Provider at TGH Urgent Care

Call your healthcare provider or seek urgent medical care if you notice symptoms such as:

  • A persistent sore throat that doesn’t get better after two days
  • A throat infection that keeps coming back
  • Difficulty swallowing or breathing
  • Swelling in the mouth or throat
  • Feeling very weak
  • Fever over 101 degrees Fahrenheit (38.33 degrees Celsius)

Additionally, if you are prescribed antibiotics but do not start feeling better within two days of starting them, go ahead and give your provider a call.8

Summary

Tonsillitis and strep throat are often used interchangeably, but they are distinct infections. Tonsillitis occurs when the tonsils become swollen due to a viral or bacterial infection, while strep throat specifically results from an infection with a particular type of bacteria.

Both conditions share similar symptoms, including a sore throat, difficulty swallowing, headaches, and fever, and can be easily transmitted from person to person. Treatment recommendations include antibiotics for strep throat and cases of bacterial tonsillitis, while over-the-counter remedies are typically used for viral tonsillitis.

If you experience any of these symptoms, consider visiting TGH Urgent Care Powered by Fast Track at one of our convenient walk-in clinic locations near you. If you’re planning to visit our facilities in the Tampa, FL, area and want to reduce your wait time, you can use our On My Way system to sign in before your arrival.

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS

1. Which is worse, tonsillitis or strep throat?

Answer:

Strep throat is generally considered worse than tonsillitis because it is caused by a specific bacteria (Streptococcus) and requires antibiotic treatment. Tonsillitis can have various causes, including viruses, and may not always require antibiotics.

2. Is tonsillitis as contagious as strep throat?

Answer:

Strep throat is typically more contagious than tonsillitis. Strep throat is caused by the Streptococcus bacteria, which can spread easily through respiratory droplets when an infected person coughs or sneezes. Tonsillitis can be caused by various factors, including viruses, and its contagiousness may vary.

3. What is the main difference between tonsillitis and strep throat?

Answer:

The main difference between tonsillitis and strep throat lies in their causes. Tonsillitis refers to the inflammation of the tonsils, which can be triggered by various factors, including viruses, bacteria, and allergies. Strep throat specifically refers to a sore throat caused by the Streptococcus bacteria (Group A Streptococcus).

4. How do you know if you have tonsillitis or strep throat?

Answer:

Symptoms of tonsillitis and strep throat can be similar, including a sore throat, difficulty swallowing, and fever. To determine which one you have, a medical professional may perform a throat swab and diagnostic tests, as strep throat specifically requires antibiotic treatment.

5. How to cure tonsillitis or strep throat?

Answer:

The treatment for tonsillitis and strep throat may vary:

  • Tonsillitis caused by viruses often resolves on its own and can be managed with rest, hydration, and over-the-counter pain relievers.
  • Bacterial tonsillitis or strep throat usually requires antibiotics prescribed by a healthcare provider. It’s essential to complete the full course of antibiotics, even if symptoms improve.

Sources

TGH Urgent Care, in collaboration with Fast Track, relies exclusively on reputable sources of the highest quality, including peer-reviewed research studies, to substantiate the information presented in our articles.

  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Sore throat.
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Strep throat: All you need to know.
  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Group A Streptococcal (GAS) disease.
  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Pharyngitis (strep throat).
  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. How infections spread.
  6. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Tonsillitis.
  7. Georgalas CC, Tolley NS, Narula PA. TonsillitisBMJ Clin Evid. 2014;2014:0503.
  8. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Diseases caused by group A strep.
  9. American Academy of Pediatrics. Strep throat, sore throat, or tonsillitis: What’s the difference?. Marks LR, Reddinger RM, Hakansson AP. Biofilm formation enhances fomite survival of Streptococcus pneumoniae and Streptococcus pyogenesInfect Immun. 2014;82(3):1141-6. doi:10.1128/IAI.01310-13
  10. National Institutes of Health. Soothing a sore throat.
  11. National Institutes of Health. Understanding recurrent tonsillitis.
  12. Mount Sinai Health System. Strep throat.
  13.  Stelter, K. Tonsillitis and sore throat in childrenGMS Curr Top Ortorhinolaryngol Head Neck Surg. 2014;13(1):7. doi:10.3205/cto000110
  14. Abu Bakar M, Mckimm J, Haque SZ, Majumder MAA, Haque M. Chronic tonsillitis and biofilms: a brief overview of treatment modalities. J Inflamm Res. 2018;11:329-337. doi:10.2147/JIR.S162486
  15. American Academy of Otolaryngology Head and Neck Surgery. Tonsillitis.
  16. Martin JM. The mysteries of streptococcal pharyngitisCurr Treat Options Pediatr. 2015;1(2):180-189. doi:10.1007/s40746-015-0013-9
  17. Kalra MG, Higgins KE, Perez ED. Common questions about streptococcal pharyngitis. Am Fam Physician. 2016;94(1):24-31.

Disclaimer

Please be advised that the information presented in this article is for informational purposes only and is not intended as medical advice. It is brought to you by TGH Urgent Care powered by Fast Track, with the sole purpose of providing valuable insights into the topic of Tonsillitis and Strep throat. For personalized medical advice or concerns about your health, it is essential to consult with a qualified healthcare professional. Your health and well-being are of paramount importance, and seeking appropriate medical guidance when needed is strongly encouraged.

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