Sore Throat, Strep Throat or Tonsillitis: Which is it?

With the flu season in full swing, countless people are getting sick from a variety of illnesses.  About 40 million people visit the doctor each year for sore throat.  Since there are many kinds of viruses and bacteria, it can be very difficult to determine an accurate diagnosis. Common illnesses include sore throat, strep throat and tonsillitis. These ailments have similarities that including the population affected, the cause, and the symptoms that manifest. To properly treat a bacterial or viral infection, it is crucial to understand which kind of infection is present in the body.

Strep ThroatWhat is Sore Throat?

A sore throat can be very uncomfortable, and feel dry, painful, and irritated. Sore throat affects people of all ages and can be caused by the common cold, the flu, allergies to foods, air pollutants or second hand smoke, sinusitis, straining the vocal cords through over use, acid reflux disease, cancer or tumors in the throat, dental infections, reaction to medications, and more. Because of the wide variety of causes of sore throat, it is best to consult with your family physician.  Sore throats can be contagious so children should not attend school while infected with the illness. Symptoms of a sore throat caused by a viral infection can include: headaches, body aches, throat pain, laryngitis, cough, fever and congestion.  Most sore throats can improve within a few day or may take as long as a week or two.  Taking antibiotics may not be necessary or effective. Viruses do not respond to antibiotics.

What are Natural Treatments for Sore Throat?
Viral infections and common throat irritations are not improved with antibiotic treatment, however a change in lifestyle and natural treatments are quit effective in alleviating pain and promoting healing.  Natural treatment for sore throat include but aren’t limited to the following:

  1. salt-water gargle
  2. lozenges and throat sprays
  3. fruit juices and fluids (8 – 10, 8-ounce glasses a day)
  4. Vitamin C
  5. honey and apple cider vinegar ( Do not give to very young children as it can cause infant botulism and may also cause allergic reactions.)
  6. lemon juice or lime juice
  7. ginger tea
  8. sage tea
  9. neti pot (to remove allergens from nose causing post nasal drip)
  10. marshmallow sap in a tea or in lozenges
  11. plenty of rest
  12. horseradish
  13. vaporizer or humidifier, or a steam tent
  14. anise or licorice drops
  15. frozen ice, or frozen fruit (cools the throat and lowers fever)
  16. garlic (contains allicin, a chemical that can kill the bacteria that causes strep).

What is Strep Throat?
Strep throat is a form of sore throat that can be caused by bacterium called Group A streptococcus, usually found in the throat or in the skin.  According to the Center of Disease Control and Prevention, Group A streptococci can “spread through direct contact with mucus from the nose or throat of persons who are infected or through contact with infected wounds or sores on the skin.” These infections can be very contagious and should be taken seriously, as it may lead to rheumatic fever, scarlet fever, and permanent heart or kidney damage.

Staph and Strep

Strep throat affects people of all ages however it is more prevalent among school-aged children and teenagers due to them being in such close proximity with each other in school. The disease is caused by a germ called Group A streptococcus bacterium. The U.S. National Library of Medicine states that the symptoms of strep throat include:

      1. Fever
      2. Red sore throat
      3. White patches in throat
      4. Swollen glands
      5. Ill feeling
      6. Headache
      7. Nausea

If antibiotics are needed, those with strep throat should stay home from school or work until the medicine has been in their system for at least 1-2 days. Strep throat can improve within two weeks if treated properly.

What is Tonsillitis?
Tonsillitis is inflammation of the tonsils. Tonsils are glands located at the back of the throat. Tonsillitis can be caused by a virus or bacterium such as Streptococcus pyogenes which causes strep throat. The American Academy of Otolaryngology –Head and Neck Surgery writes that herpes simplex virus and Epstein-Barr virus can also be the cause of tonsillitis. The illness affects primarily children and teens ages 5-15.

Symptoms Tonsilitis

Symptoms of tonsillitis include:

      1. Fever
      2. Sore throat
      3. White or yellow patches in throat
      4. Tender lymph nodes in the neck
      5. Painful swallowing
      6. Lethargy
      7. Halitosis

Tonsillitis is very contagious and can be spread from person to person by contact with mucus of someone who is infected with the sickness. To diagnose tonsillitis, a doctor must perform either a rapid strep test or throat culture. Antibiotics are usually prescribed for tonsillitis caused by a bacterium. A child with tonsillitis needs plenty of rest and liquids. To prevent the re-occurrence of tonsillitis, practicing good hygiene is essential.

Sore Throat

How Can We Be Certain Which Ailment We Have?

Sore throat
is a minor condition. Strep throat and tonsillitis can both be caused by either a virus or bacterium infection such as Group A streptococcus. All three ailments cause headaches, fever and similar symptoms. The best way to determine which illness is occurring would be to visit the doctor to get tested with the Rapid Strep Test (RST), or rapid antigen detection test (RADT).  The Rapid Strep Test is one of the most common tests for streptococcal pharyngitis. If antibiotics are needed, take the dosage as prescribed by your trusted physician. Washing hands and face often can greatly help prevent the contraction of a sore throat, strep throat or tonsillitis.




Center for Disease Control and Prevention

U.S. National Library of Medicine

American Academy of Otolaryngology

New Human Physiology, by Paulev-Zubieta


 Hang Pham, MBHA Health EducatorThis article is written by Hang Pham, Monterey Bay Holistic Alliance Health and Wellness Educator.  Hang Pham was born in Hoc Mon, Vietnam.  She came to America in 1994, becoming a U.S. citizen in 2011. Hang graduated from Seaside High School with diploma and received her AA in General Studies from Monterey Peninsula College in 2011. She received her BA in Collaborative Health and Human Services from California State University Monterey Bay (CSUMB) in 2012. In addition to working as a volunteer staff with the Monterey Bay Holistic Alliance, she currently works as a Clerical Aid in the Human Resources Department of Salinas City Hall. To find out more about our Health Educators, or to apply as a Monterey Bay Holistic Alliance writer or volunteer, visit our website at

Disclaimer: The Monterey Bay Holistic Alliance is a charitable, independent registered nonprofit 501(c)3 organization and does not endorse any particular products or practices. We exist as an educational organization dedicated to providing free access to health education resources, products and services. Claims and statements herein are for informational purposes only and have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. The statements about organizations, practitioners, methods of treatment, and products listed on this website are not meant to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. This information is intended for educational purposes only. The MBHA strongly recommends that you seek out your trusted medical doctor or practitioner for diagnosis and treatment of any existing health condition.

2 thoughts on “Sore Throat, Strep Throat or Tonsillitis: Which is it?

  1. Tonsillitis is caused by either bacteria or a virus. The passage of the germs that cause tonsillitis are passed through numerous mechanisms, and children are especially susceptible. Children are exposed to a higher number of bacteria and viruses than adults and their immune systems are still developing.
    I recommend also soma additional resources about tonsillitis symptoms, causes and treatment:

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