The Difference Between a Sore Throat, Strep Throat and Tonsillitis

From my experience of people coming into the pharmacy, they are often confused as to whether they have sore throat caused by the common cold, strep throat or the early stages of tonsillitis. They are often used interchangeably but let me explain the difference between the three, and accompanying symptoms and treatment.

A sore throat is most often caused by a viral infection such as the common cold. It tends to be one of the first symptoms to appear, followed by congestion, runny nose or a cough. When a virus is present, antibiotics are of no use and so over the counter painkillers, throat sprays and lozenges will help soothe your sore throat. While the virus and other symptoms may last 7-10 days, the sore throat will usually improve within 48 hours.

Strep throat is caused by streptococcus bacteria. The symptoms of strep throat differ from that of a common cold sore throat as its more painful, lasts longer, makes swallowing difficult, and is accompanied by a fever, and swollen tonsils/glands. Additionally other common cold symptoms such as a cough will not be present. The good news is that as strep throat is bacterial, it can be treated with antibiotics.

Tonsillitis is a painful inflammation or infection of the tonsils, that can be both viral and bacterial. The tonsils are located at the back of the throat and thus when swell make for a very painful sore throat. Additional symptoms include white spots on the tonsils, voice changes due to swelling, painful swallowing, bad breath and fever. For bacterial tonsillitis, antibiotics can be used to treat the infection. However if it a viral infection, you will just have to rest, stay hydrated, and take over the counter painkillers to ease the pain until the infection passes.