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Strep, Tonsillitis, or Cold - How to Tell the Difference

January 12, 2017


Strep, Tonsillitis, or Cold - How to Tell the Difference


You wake up in the morning, take a moment to groggily get your bearings, swallow and suddenly you realize – you have a sore throat.  Is it passing?  Will it be better as the morning wears on?  Or will you end up taking sick days and antibiotics?  It’s a scenario that we’ve all encountered multiple times.  A sore throat is certainly nothing new to anyone.  Sometimes a gargle with warm salt water is all it takes to soothe the discomfort, and at others, the pain stretches on for days with swollen, tender lymph nodes to match. 

The dilemma for patients is determining the source of their sore throat and what action they should take.  Of course, a physician can perform an exam and related tests to help you determine the exact cause of your discomfort, but there are signs that can indicate, before ever stepping foot into your doctor’s office, whether your sore throat is from a cold or associated with a more serious illness such as strep throat or tonsillitis.

Signs & Symptoms of a Cold

A sore throat is a common first symptom from a run-of-the-mill cold virus.  Viral sore throats such as those associated with a cold typically improve within the first 24 to 48 hours.  Other symptoms that may accompany them include a runny nose, sneezing, and cough.  In some cases, a low-grade fever and mild body aches may also be present.  While there is no cure for a cold, there are steps that can be taken to ease symptoms and keep you comfortable.  Over-the-counter pain and cold medications, sore throat lozenges and sprays, and nasal sprays may all be useful.  Additionally, patients with a cold should stay well rested and drink plenty of fluids as they recover.

Signs & Symptoms of Strep Throat

What we commonly call strep throat is caused by streptococcus bacteria.  It is spread through contact with infected individuals.  The symptoms associated with strep are typically more severe than those found with a cold.  Sore throat is sudden and long-lasting and often accompanied by loss of appetite, fever, and swollen red tonsils with white spots.  The condition is easily identifiable through a rapid strep test.  If the test is positive, it is important to treat quickly, as streptococcus may lead to more serious health concerns.  Fortunately, treatment is quick and simple, requiring only a prescription or shot of antibiotics such as penicillin or amoxicillin. 

Signs & Symptoms of Tonsillitis

Tonsillitis, an inflammation of the tonsils, may be caused by a viral or bacterial infection.  The swollen tonsils lead to a very painful sore throat along with white or yellow spots at the back of the throat.  Other associated symptoms may include bad breath, hoarse voice, swollen lymph nodes in the neck, and fever.  For cases of tonsillitis caused by bacteria, antibiotics can be prescribed to fight the infection.  Viral cases will need to resolve on their own.  However, patients can help the process by getting adequate amounts of rest, staying hydrated, and using over-the-counter medications to increase comfort.

Next time you find yourself with a sore throat, visit an ear, nose and throat specialist for an accurate diagnosis and treatment plan.  The sooner you seek the help of an ENT, the sooner you’ll find yourself on the road to recovery.  Now accepting new patients from the greater Baton Rouge region, the ENT specialists at Lane treat all forms of ear, nose and throat related illnesses. 

Learn More About Lane ENT