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Strep Throat and Tonsils: What's the Connection?

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Medically Reviewed By Colgate Global Scientific Communications

If your throat is sore and your tonsils feel swollen, it can be hard to know if you have strep throat or if it's something else. The good news is that your doctor can help your figure out if you're experiencing strep throat. Read on to find out what causes strep throat, its symptoms, and the connection between strep throat and tonsils.

What Is Strep Throat?

Strep throat is a bacterial infection that makes your throat feel sore and scratchy. It accounts for just a small percentage of sore throats. According to the Mayo Clinic, the specific bacteria that causes strep throat is group A Streptococcus (group A strep). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention points out that the same bacteria can cause scarlet fever and rheumatic fever, especially if untreated.

So how can you get strep throat? Group A strep bacteria are highly contagious and can spread through airborne droplets if someone with the infection coughs or sneezes near you or through sharing food or drinks with someone infected. You can also get infected by touching a doorknob or other surface that has bacteria on it and then touching your nose, mouth, or eyes. While it's kids who most commonly experience strep throat, people of all ages can get infected, and it has a higher occurrence in winter and early spring.

Have you ever wondered if you can get strep throat from not brushing your teeth or tooth infections? While this isn't true, it's still important to brush your teeth twice a day to prevent tooth decay and dental caries, commonly known as cavities.

What Is the Connection between Strep Throat and Your Tonsils?

If you're wondering if your tonsils are affected by strep throat, the answer is yes. Strep throat can cause your tonsils to feel red and swollen, sometimes even having white patches or streaks of pus on them.

The Mayo Clinic states that other signs and symptoms include:

  • Throat pain
  • Pain while swallowing
  • Swollen or tender lymph nodes
  • Fever, body ache, and headaches
  • Rash
  • Nausea and vomiting, especially in kids

It's worth noting that you might have some or many of these symptoms and not have strep throat. Likewise, it's possible to carry group A strep bacteria without showing any signs.

Strep Throat versus Tonsillitis

We've established that your tonsils can be affected by strep throat. Does that mean strep throat is just an interchangeable term for tonsillitis? That's actually not the case. According to the Mayo Clinic, while tonsillitis can be caused by group A streptococcus, the same bacterium that causes strep throat, it can also be caused by other strains of strep and other bacteria.

That's why if you or your child is experiencing symptoms like a sore throat or swollen tonsils, it's essential to consult with your doctor to get a proper diagnosis and receive appropriate treatment. While you can go to your dentist if you think you have tonsillitis, your general physician will probably be the best healthcare professional to consult in this situation.

If you have strep throat, your doctor will most likely prescribe an oral antibiotic. If taken within the first 48 hours of becoming sick, the antibiotics will decrease the length and severity of your symptoms, as well as reduce the chance of you spreading it to anyone else.

If you have tonsillitis, your doctor will first figure out if it's caused by a virus or a bacteria, like group A strep. If a virus has caused your illness, rest and at-home strategies are the only treatment. But if a bacterium causes your tonsillitis, your doctor will most likely prescribe a course of antibiotics.

If your child has recurring strep throat, you might also wonder if removing the tonsils might help. The Mayo Clinic notes that if your child is diagnosed with strep throat seven or more times a year, a tonsillectomy (removal of the tonsils) can reduce the frequency and severity of strep throat infections. That said, your child may still get strep throat even after having their tonsils removed.

Strep throat can be really painful, no matter what age you get it at. If you're worried about sore tonsils, don't hesitate to consult with your doctor. Getting the right treatment as soon as possible is key to ensuring you are healthy and pain-free!

Oral Care Center articles are reviewed by an oral health medical professional. This information is for educational purposes only. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your dentist, physician or other qualified healthcare provider. 

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