Difference Between Tonsillitis And Strep Throat

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What is Tonsillitis?

Tonsillitis is an infection of the tonsils, two lymph nodes located on each side of the back of the throat. Tonsillitis can be caused by a bacterial or viral infection. 

Bacterial tonsillitis is caused by the same bacteria that causes strep, Streptococcus pyogenes (group A strep). Other bacteria may cause tonsillitis, but group A strep is the most common. The viruses that are responsible for the flu and common cold can lead to tonsillitis.

Symptoms of tonsillitis

Common symptoms of tonsillitis include:

  • Sore throat, sometimes severe
  • Red and swollen tonsils
  • Discomfort or trouble swallowing
  • Enlarged, tender glands (lymph nodes) in the neck
  • White or yellow coating or patches on the tonsils
  • Fever
  • Bad breath
  • A scratchy, muffled or throaty voice
  • Neck pain or stiff neck

Viral tonsillitis is treated with over-the-counter medications to alleviate pain and discomfort. Acetaminophen or ibuprofen may be used to reduce the pain and swelling, as well as any fever. If the pain is severe, you can alternate these medications for more effective relief. 

Other at-home remedies include drinking plenty of liquids, taking throat lozenges, gargling warm salt water, and using a humidifier to moisten the air and reduce irritation. Bacterial tonsillitis can be treated with antibiotics. The most common antibiotic is penicillin. 

What is Strep throat?

Strep throat is caused by a bacterial infection known as Streptococcus pyogenes, also called group A Streptococcus. Streptococcal bacteria live in the nose and throat and spread through contaminated droplets.

When someone who has strep bacteria sneezes, the droplets spread into the air and on nearby surfaces. Coming into contact with these contaminated droplets increases the risk of developing strep throat.

Symptoms of strep throat

Strep throat may look like other forms of sore throats and tonsillitis, but some common symptoms of strep include:

  • Sore throat that comes on quickly
  • Pain with swallowing
  • Fever
  • Swollen or inflammation of the tonsils, with white spots or streaks on them
  • Tiny, red spots on the roof of the mouth
  • Swollen or tender lymph nodes in the neck.

A bacterial strep infection is commonly treated with amoxillin or penicillin. Other common antibiotics include Zithromax (azithromycin), Suprax (cefixime), Biaxin (clarithromycin), and Cleocin (clindamycin).

At-home remedies for strep throat are the same as for tonsillitis. Drinking warm liquids may temporarily help relieve some of the pain. Popsicles and throat lozenges may also help provide pain relief and comfort. Over-the-counter pain relievers like acetaminophen and ibuprofen will help reduce pain, fever, and swelling.

Tonsillitis vs Strep Throat: Key Differences

BasisTonsillitisStrep Throat
Affected AreaInflammation of the tonsilsInfection in the throat and tonsils
CauseCan be viral or bacterialCaused specifically by Streptococcus bacteria
SymptomsSore throat, difficulty swallowing, swollen tonsils, fever, headacheSore throat, fever, swollen and red tonsils, white patches on tonsils
ContagiousnessCan be contagious if caused by a bacterial infectionHighly contagious, especially in the early stages
DiagnosisClinical evaluation, throat swab for culture or rapid strep testThroat swab for a rapid strep test or throat culture
TreatmentRest, fluids, pain relievers, and addressing underlying causeAntibiotics (usually penicillin or other antibiotics), rest, fluids
DurationCan vary depending on the causeTypically improves within a week
ComplicationsRare complications, such as abscess formation or chronic tonsillitis, may occurPotential complications, like rheumatic fever or kidney disease if left untreated
Age Group AffectedCommon in children and adolescentsCan affect people of all ages
RecurrenceMay recur if the underlying cause (e.g., chronic tonsillitis) is not treatedRecurrence is possible, but less common with prompt treatment
PreventionPracticing good hygiene, avoiding close contact with sick individualsMinimizing exposure to infected individuals, good hygiene
occurrenceCan occur anytimeStrep throat is most common in the fall and early spring.

What is the main difference between strep throat and tonsillitis?

Tonsillitis is the inflammation of the tonsils that causes a sore throat, painful swallowing, and swollen lymph nodes. It may be caused by a virus or bacteria and is spread easily from person to person. Strep throat produces similar symptoms to tonsillitis and is also contagious, but it is caused by a specific bacteria called group A Streptococcus. 

Key Takeaways

  • Strep throat is caused specifically by the group A Streptococcus bacteria. No other group of bacteria or virus causes it.
  • Sore throat or pharyngitis occurs due to inflammation that attacks the throat area. In contrast to tonsillitis, which attacks the tonsillar glands, which act as catchers and exterminators of germs in the respiratory tract.
  • Unlike strep throat, which is only caused by the streptococcus bacteria, tonsillitis can be caused by multiple types of bacteria or viruses. Tonsillitis is only one symptom of these viruses or bacteria.
  • Tonsillitis symptoms may vary based on whether the cause of the infection is a virus or bacterium.
  • Strep throat causes red spots on the roof of the mouth. Tonsillitis causes inflammation of the tonsils.
  • Symptoms of a Strep throat tend to come on quickly and are more likely to affect children rather than adults.
  • People with strep may also have flu-like symptoms including body aches and chills.
  • Group A streptococcus bacteria causes between 5% and 15% of sore throats in adults.
  • Group A streptococcus bacteria causes between 20% to 30% of sore throats in children.
  • Bacterial tonsillitis is rare under the age of 2.