Sore Throat vs Tonsillitis: Differences and Treatment

Little girl with a sore throat
Tonsillitis and sore throats


Sore Throat vs Tonsillitis

Your throat feels inflamed. Swallowing food or water feels like labor. You know there is something wrong, but you are not sure whether you have a sore throat or tonsillitis. Do not panic. There are ways to spot which is which. 

Often, a sore throat is the first warning sign of an imminent cold. Mild symptoms usually go away after a day or two. When you have a sore throat, inflammation may occur around the tonsils. If the tonsils themselves are inflamed, you are afflicted with tonsillitis. Those suffering from tonsillitis may or may not have a sore throat. 

Sore throat and tonsillitis are two of the most common throat problems to watch out for. Now, let us get into the details of what differentiates these medical conditions. 

Sore throat symptoms

Here are the signs to watch out for if you suspect yourself to have contracted a sore throat. 

  • Pain in the throat
  • Pain that worsens with talking or swallowing
  • Difficulty talking or swallowing
  • Scratchy sensation in the throat
  • Sore, swollen glands in your neck or jaw
  • Inflamed tonsils
  • White patches or pus on your tonsils
  • Hoarseness

If your sore throat is triggered by a cold, you might also feel the following symptoms:

  • Fever
  • Runny nose
  • Cough
  • Sneezing
  • Headache 
  • Body aches
  • Vomiting
  • Nausea 

Sore throat causes

A variety of causes may trigger a sore throat, such as a viral infection. Other common causes of sore throat include the following: 

  • Common cold
  • Flu (influenza)
  • Measles
  • Chickenpox
  • Mono (mononucleosis)
  • Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19)
  • Croup

A bacterial infection may also trigger a sore throat, such as Streptococcus pyogenes (group A streptococcus). On top of viral and bacterial infections, other possible causes include the following:

  • Allergies
  • Dry indoor air
  • Outdoor air pollution
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
  • Muscle strain due to yelling or prolonged/loud talking
  • Tumors of the tongue, throat, and larynx
  • HIV infection

Sore Throat Risk Factors

Some people are more susceptible to a sore throat than others. In terms of age, the condition is most prevalent among those aged 3 to 15.

Those who are chronically exposed to tobacco smoke and other chemical irritants in the air are prone to the condition, too. The same goes for individuals who suffer from allergies and frequent sinus infections, as well as those who stay in closed quarters for prolonged periods.

A weakened immunity may trigger recurring sore throat. People with comorbidities are at risk. 

Sore Throat Prevention

Your first line of defense against a sore throat is proper hygiene. The key is to avoid contact with surfaces that may contain bacteria and viruses responsible for the condition. With that said, constant hand washing is important. Maintaining clean surroundings is of the essence, too.

Be wary of your living space or work quarters as well. That’s most crucial if your sore throat is triggered by allergic attacks and sinus infections. 

medication for a sore throat
Know when to see a doctor

When to see a doctor

If your child’s sore throat causes difficulty swallowing, difficulty breathing, and unusual drooling, seek immediate medical attention. Meanwhile, if you’re an adult, see a doctor if your sore throat triggers severe symptoms that don’t go away after a week. Be mindful of the following signs:

  • Joint pain
  • Rash
  • Earache
  • Fever higher than 101 F (38.3 C)
  • A lump in your neck
  • Swelling in your neck or face
  • Hoarseness lasting more than two weeks
  • Blood in your saliva or phlegm

Tonsillitis symptoms 

If you suspect that you have contracted tonsillitis, look for these common symptoms.

  • Red, swollen tonsils
  • Sore throat
  • White or yellow coating or patches on the tonsils
  • Stomachache
  • Headache
  • Fever
  • Bad breath
  • Neck pain or stiff neck
  • Difficult or painful swallowing
  • Enlarged, tender lymph nodes in the neck
  • Hoarseness

It’s more difficult to ascertain whether children have tonsillitis. They cannot communicate how they feel, after all. As a parent or guardian, be warned when a child refuses to eat, drools too much, or acts fussy in an uncharacteristic manner. 

Tonsillitis causes

Both viruses and bacteria may cause tonsillitis. The most common bacterium that triggers the condition is Streptococcus pyogenes (group A streptococcus). 

Tonsillitis risk factors

Tonsillitis is most common in children aged 5 to 15. That has something to do with the tonsils’ immune system function, which declines the older we get. Adults seldom experience tonsillitis given how the tonsils have become less active in fighting viruses and bacteria that try to invade the body.

People who are frequently exposed to germs are at a higher risk of contracting tonsillitis. Consider, for instance, those working in medical facilities who are chronically exposed to harmful pathogens. 

Tonsillitis is a sign that your immune system is working doubly hard to protect you from harm caused by foreign microorganisms.

Sore throat prevention

Again, your first line of defense is proper hygiene. Keep in mind that the viruses and bacteria that cause tonsillitis are contagious. If you are exposed to an infected surface or aerosol, you might contract the disease. 

Consistent handwashing is a must. If you’re in the company of a person afflicted with the condition, follow precautionary measures such as wearing a mask. 

Refrain from sharing eating utensils and drinking bottles – or sharing food, for that matter. After recovery from tonsillitis, change your toothbrush. 

When to see a doctor

Take your children to a doctor in case of the following scenarios:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Excessive drooling
  • Extreme difficulty swallowing
  • A sore throat accompanied by fever
  • A sore throat that lasts 48 hours

For adults, strict medical attention is needed in case of:

  • Obstructive sleep apnea – Disrupted breathing during sleep
  • Peritonsillar abscess – Infection that results in a collection of pus behind a tonsil 
  • Tonsillar cellulitis – Infection that spreads deep into surrounding tissue

Sore Throat vs Tonsillitis

A sore throat does not automatically mean you have tonsillitis. But when you contract tonsillitis, you are at a greater risk to suffer from a sore throat. 

It is crucial to be mindful of the symptoms you feel. And if they start to cause you irregular discomfort, consult with a doctor. Let a professional ascertain what afflicts you, as you can't play a guessing game when it comes to your health. 

Author: MJ Fernandez is corporate communication and publicity professional at Makati Medical Center, who works with doctors and media representatives to produce informative and creative materials about healthcare. When not writing and editing articles, he spends his time traveling and exploring places outside the city.

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