It can start as a seemingly simple sore throat, but strep throat can grow into a painful infection. Find out what causes strep throat, what symptoms to look for and how strep throat and tonsils are connected.
Strep Throat Causes
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), most sore throats are caused by viruses, and 20 to 30 percent are caused by bacteria. Sore throats caused by bacteria are cases of strep throat. The specific bacteria responsible for strep throat is group A Streptococcus (or group A strep), and the CDC notes that this group causes many other infections, too, including rheumatic fever and scarlet fever.
Group A strep infections are highly contagious and spread easily. They're also more common in young children and have a higher prevalence in winter and early spring, according to the Mayo Clinic. Likewise, if you're a parent of a young child, you're also more susceptible. The CDC states that the most common forms of transmission include:
Breathing in respiratory droplets from an infected person
Touching an object with droplets and then touching your mouth or nose
Having contact with skin sores caused by group A strep
Sharing food or drinking glasses with an infected person
Luckily, as the CDC reports, the strep infection is less likely to spread via household items, such as your child's toys.
While your tonsils aren't the source of strep throat, they can be significantly affected by it. When the group A strep bacteria enter your oral cavity, they can cause a sore throat, among other accompanying symptoms. Per the Mayo Clinic, these can include:
- Swelling or white patches on your tonsils
- Pain when swallowing
- Achiness and headaches
- Inflamed lymph nodes
It's also important to note that you can carry group A strep bacteria with no symptoms of strep throat. Unfortunately, if a strep infection is left untreated or undetected, children can develop other conditions, such as rheumatic fever, according to the CDC.
Strep Throat and Tonsillitis
The difference between strep throat and tonsils with tonsillitis can be confusing. Tonsillitis simply refers to inflammation of the tonsils, and while it is typically caused by a virus, it can be caused by strep bacteria, too. This inflammation results in red, swollen tonsils and a sore throat, as the Mayo Clinic notes.
Because the symptoms of strep throat and tonsillitis overlap, it can be hard to determine what the cause of your sore throat is. Therefore, it's important to get a proper diagnosis from a doctor to deduce whether you or your child's suffering is the result of a viral or bacterial infection — then, your doctor can appropriately treat you and help you manage any pain.
The Mayo Clinic states that your doctor can determine whether your or your child's painful infection is the result of bacteria or a virus with either a painless throat swab or a blood sample. A throat swab will reveal whether strep bacteria are present, and assessing your blood count levels can help a doctor identify if the cause is bacterial or viral. While some clinics offer a quick result, called a "rapid strep test," in other cases, it can take 24 to 48 hours for results.
If your doctor determines that your sore throat is strep, antibiotic treatments can clear up the infection quickly. Unfortunately, antibiotics don't kill viruses, so if the cause is a virus, the only option is to let it run its course, which may take up to 10 days.
Can You Get Strep Throat After Removing Tonsils?
If you've had several bouts of strep throat, you may wonder if having your tonsils removed could help. The Mayo Clinic advises that you can still get strep throat and sore throats even without your tonsils. In some cases, however, removing the tonsils might reduce the frequency or severity of repeated strep cases, especially if a child gets strep throat seven times or more in the duration of a year. Ultimately, removing the tonsils is a personal choice, but if the tonsils are causing airway obstruction, your doctor may recommend it.
Speak with your doctor if you're concerned about strep throat and tonsils. They'll help you make the right choice for yourself or your child.