Strep Throat vs. Tonsillitis

Nick Rosen, MD
Medically reviewed by Nick Rosen, MDDecember 28th, 2020
Senior coughing

You’ve been feeling under the weather the past few days and your main symptom is a sore throat. As you research all of your symptoms to narrow down the potential cause, you’ve found that they fall under two different conditions: strep throat and tonsillitis. While both of these affect the throat and have similar symptoms, there are some differences in what causes these conditions and how they’re treated. Let’s explore each condition individually and compare the two so that you can get a better idea of which one you might have.

Strep Throat

Streptococcal pharyngitis, most commonly referred to as strep throat, is a bacterial infection that causes inflammation and pain in the throat. You can contract the bacteria that causes strep throat through respiratory droplets from someone else by breathing them in, touching them with your hands and then your mouth or nose, or drinking from the same glass.

The main indicator of strep is a sore throat that comes on very suddenly, but there are a number of other symptoms, as well. They include:

  • Pain when swallowing
  • Fever
  • Red and swollen tonsils, sometimes with white patches or streaks of pus
  • Tiny, red spots (petechiae) on the roof of your mouth
  • Swollen lymph nodes in the front of the neck


Most people have twooval-shaped pads of tissue at the back of the throat called tonsils. Tonsillitis is inflammation of the tonsils that is typically caused by a virus, but bacterial infections may also cause tonsillitis. The most frequent symptoms of tonsillitis include:

  • Sore throat
  • Red, swollen tonsils
  • White or yellow coating or patches on the tonsils
  • Difficult or painful swallowing
  • Fever
  • Enlarged, tender glands (lymph nodes) in the neck
  • A scratchy, muffled or throaty voice
  • Bad breath
  • Stomachache
  • Neck pain or stiff neck
  • Headache


Reading through the symptoms of both strep throat and tonsillitis, it’s clear why many people have a hard time differentiating between the two. Technically, strep throat can be considered a type of tonsillitis since both conditions present a sore throat as the main symptom, and can affect the tonsils by making them swell and have some sort of white coating or patchiness. These and various other overlapping symptoms like swollen lymph nodes and fever are why many people confuse the two and potentially misdiagnose themselves with one instead of the other.


Scientifically, the key differentiator between strep throat and tonsillitis is that strep is caused by group A Streptococcus bacteria, while tonsillitis can be caused by viruses or bacteria. This is why strep throat can be considered a type of tonsillitis, but not the other way around. Group A Streptococcus bacteria is what separates strep throat and tonsillitis and causes the slightly different symptoms of each condition. For example, people who have contracted strep throat may experience additional ailments like body aches, nausea, and even vomiting. If these develop on top of the previously mentioned symptoms, there is a good chance that you have strep throat and not tonsillitis.

Another major difference between these two throat conditions is how they are treated. Since strep is solely caused by a specific type of bacteria, it is treated with an antibiotic medication. This can also be the treatment option for tonsillitis caused by bacteria but not will not work on tonsillitis that’s a result of a viral infection. The treatment options for a viral tonsillitis include:

  • Plenty of rest
  • Fluids to stay hydrated
  • Over-the-counter pain relievers like ibuprofen or acetaminophen
  • Throat lozenges

Receive the Right Diagnosis

While you’ve hopefully gotten a clearer idea of how strep throat and tonsillitis differ, you shouldn’t use this guide to diagnose yourself with one or the other. It’s important to receive the right diagnosis from a medical professional so that you can know for sure and be put on the right treatment regimen.

At DispatchHealth, we understand that with the ongoing presence of coronavirus and public health advice to stay home, you may be cautious about going to an urgent care or doctor’s office for a diagnosis and treatment of your potential strep throat or tonsillitis. You can avoid this by having DispatchHealth come to your home for comprehensive medical care. Not only do we have a team of highly trained medical personnel, but we’re carefully following all safety protocols related to COVID-19 to keep our patients protected.

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