Although it can start as a seemingly simple sore throat, strep throat can grow into a painful infection. Find out what causes strep throat, what symptoms to look out for and how strep throat and tonsils are connected.
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 germs. Sore throats caused by germs are cases of strep throat. The specific bacteria responsible for strep throat are 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 the condition. When group A strep bacteria enter your oral cavity, they can cause a sore throat, among other accompanying symptoms. As 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.
The difference between strep throat and tonsillitis can be confusing. Tonsillitis simply refers to inflammation of the tonsils; while this 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 noted by the Mayo Clinic.
Given that strep throat and tonsillitis symptoms overlap, it can be hard to determine the cause of your sore throat. Therefore, it's important to get a proper diagnosis from a doctor to understand whether your (or your child's) suffering is the result of a viral or bacterial infection — your doctor can then administer the right treatment and help manage any pain.
The Mayo Clinic states that your doctor can determine whether your (or your child's) painful infection is the result of germs 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; if the cause is viral, the only option is to let it run its course, which may take up to 10 days.
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 may 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 this.
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.