Strep Throat, Tonsilitis, or Sore Throat: What’s the Difference?

The terms strep throat, sore throat, and tonsillitis often are used interchangeably, but they don’t mean the same thing. Many people don’t realize that there is a difference and often treat their symptoms without knowing what is wrong.

Sore Throat 

A sore throat is a general term that can describe any type of pain, irritation, or scratchiness in the throat. A sore throat can be caused by many things, including:

  • Allergies (postnasal drip)
  • Viruses (including the flu)
  • Bacteria (such as strep throat)
  • Smoking
  • Dry air

If you have a sore throat, try sucking on ice chips, popsicles or lozenges, gargling salt water, or drinking warm beverages with honey. If the sore throat is the result of a virus, antibiotics will not work as treatment. 


Tonsillitis is an infection of the tonsils, two lymph nodes located on each side of the back of the throat. Tonsillitis can be caused by a bacterial or viral infection. As mentioned previously, a sore throat is a symptom of tonsilitis and is usually accompanied by discoloration and swelling in or around the tonsils, as well as a fever. This infection is most common in children between the ages of five and 15, but it can occur at any age. It is more common in the winter and spring.

Tonsillitis usually goes away on its own within a week, however, if sore throat remedies do not help relieve the symptoms and/or they reappear frequently, your provider may recommend having your tonsils removed. If tonsillitis is the result of a bacterial infection, an antibiotic may be prescibed. 

Strep Throat

Strep throat is caused by a bacterial infection known as Streptococcus pyogenes, also called group A Streptococcus. Streptococcal bacteria are contagious. They can spread through droplets when someone with the infection coughs or sneezes, or through shared food or drinks. You can also pick up the bacteria from a doorknob or other surface and transfer them to your nose, mouth, or eyes.

Symptoms include a sore throat, a fever (higher than with tonsilitis), swollen lymph nodes in the neck and throat, redness or white spots in the throat, fatigue, and body aches. Because strep throat is caused by a bacteria, it should be treated with antibiotics once diagnosed. 

If you suspect you or your child has strep throat, contact your primary care provider. Only a strep test can confirm strep throat diagnosis, and a diagnosis is required to recieve proper antibiotics. 

While strep throat, a common sore throat, and tonsillitis have similar symptoms, they are different conditions. If you are unsure of whether or not you or a loved one have a simple sore throat or something more, we encourage you to visit your primary care provider.