Tonsillitis Versus Strep Throat: What's The Difference?

Maybe it starts with a tingle in the back of your throat, or you wake up and suddenly it hurts to swallow. At some point, most people have had a sore throat. Knowing the cause and how to properly treat it is key to minimizing the length and severity of a painful throat.

Strep throat, officially called streptococcal pharyngitis after the bacteria that causes the illness, and tonsillitis are two types of conditions that can cause a sore throat, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). However, though they might share symptoms, they are very different in their respective cause and treatment. While strep throat only comes about from one specific type of bacteria, tonsillitis can have a variety of origins.

Both tonsillitis and strep throat come with similar symptoms, including enlarged lymph nodes in the neck, fever, upset stomach, nausea, headaches, pain and difficulty when swallowing, and, of course, a sore throat (via Healthline). Children are especially prone to both conditions, but adults can also become susceptible. Whenever you feel pain in your throat that disrupts normal functions, it's important to consult with your healthcare provider to determine the cause and best course of treatment.

What is strep throat?

Strep throat is an illness caused by group A streptococcus, or the bacteria streptococcus pyogenes, according to Mayo Clinic. While it's much easier to simply say "strep throat" instead of trying to pronounce the name of the bacteria, doing so doesn't make the sore throat it causes any less painful. Also unfortunate is that the illness is highly contagious and is easily spread. The bacteria that causes strep throat is transmitted through saliva in a multitude of ways, including by sharing food and beverages, being near someone when they sneeze or cough, or by touching a surface and then touching your face.

Symptoms of strep throat that are different from the symptoms of tonsillitis include body aches, vomiting, and perhaps the hallmark of strep throat, which is the presence of white or red spots on the roof of the mouth or back of the throat (per Healthline). Luckily, strep throat is easily treated with antibiotics, which typically only take about 24 hours to start working, meaning that relief should be relatively swift. To ease the symptoms, you can drink warm liquids such as hot tea with honey or lemon, as well as broth or soup. Humidifiers increasing the moisture in the air can lessen throat pain. Whenever you are feeling unwell, remember to drink lots of water and get sufficient rest.

What is tonsillitis?

The two fleshy wads of tissue on either side of the inside of your throat are your tonsils. Generally they're oval-shaped and may have craters, reports Mayo Clinic. Tonsillitis occurs when a virus or bacteria infects your tonsils, causing inflammation, swelling, discomfort, and pain. The same bacteria that causes strep throat, streptococcus pyogenes, can also cause tonsillitis, though it is important to note that unlike strep throat, the group A streptococcus bacteria is not the only cause of tonsillitis.

Symptoms of tonsillitis that differ from those of strep throat involve stiff neck, yellow or white coloring of the tonsils (which are normally a pink or red color like the rest of the tissue in your mouth), and swelling of the tonsils that can make swallowing a painful struggle (per Healthline). Because there are multiple potential origins of tonsillitis, treatment depends on the root cause of the diagnosis. If tonsillitis is caused by bacteria, then antibiotics are usually prescribed. Prescription steroids are an option to reduce severe inflammation of the tonsils, and if the inflammation is so severe that you can't breathe or you experience recurrent tonsillitis, then a procedure called a tonsillectomy may be performed to remove your tonsils. For at-home treatments, you can try gargling with salt water or sucking on throat lozenges to relieve tonsil and throat pain (via Mayo Clinic). Over-the-counter medications like Tylenol and Ibuprofen can be used to treat pain and fever, but always consult with your doctor when taking medication.