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Sore throat: How do I know if it's really tonsillitis?

Published on December 18, 2023 at 20:18

Cold weather brings all sorts of ailments, which can affect the young and not-so-young alike. From a sore throat to a cough, it can be hard to know what's causing these symptoms. It could be, among other things, tonsillitis, which is not well-known by many people. 

What is tonsillitis?

Tonsils are small organs located in different parts of your throat. There are 5 different types of tonsils, and they all play a part in defending your body against infection. They produce antibodies that fight viruses and bacteria. They also help to produce white blood cells. When the tonsils become infected, they become swollen and painful, known as tonsillitis.


Tonsillitis mainly causes pain in your throat, particularly when swallowing, due to inflammation of the tonsils. Other symptoms may also arise, including:

  • Fever
  • White patches or pus on tonsils
  • Swollen lymph nodes in the neck
  • Headaches
  • Cold symptoms


Tonsillitis can be caused by two different types of infection: viral or bacterial. Most of the time, it will be caused by a respiratory virus, such as the common cold or flu. In these cases, throat pain is often paired with other cold symptoms, such as nasal congestion, runny nose or cough. The mononucleosis virus can also cause tonsillitis.

Tonsillitis can, in rarer cases, be caused by a bacterial infection known as streptococcal infection. Streptococci are bacteria that occur naturally in the throats of a proportion of the population, but they can also cause infections.

What are the differences between tonsillitis, pharyngitis and laryngitis?

If you have a sore throat, how do you know what's causing it? It can be challenging to distinguish between different throat infections since their symptoms are all the same. 

Infection or inflammation of the throat is usually referred to as pharyngitis. Pharyngitis is often caused by respiratory viruses; however, it can also result from a streptococcal bacterial infection, such as tonsillitis. Tonsillitis occurs only when the tonsils are also infected.

If you experience a loss or change of voice, it could be laryngitis, an inflammation of the vocal cords. It can be caused, among other things, by exposure to irritants, such as tobacco or overusing the voice (excessive singing or shouting).

How can I relieve the symptoms of tonsillitis?

Several tips and tricks can help you eliminate, or at least reduce, the symptoms of tonsillitis:

  • Analgesics are an excellent option to relieve a sore throat. They can also help reduce fever.
  • Lozenges promote salivation, which is soothing for the throat. Some lozenges also contain analgesic ingredients that can relieve pain.
  • Good hydration is always recommended when you're ill. Drinking plenty of water helps prevent throat dryness, which can worsen the pain.
  • Products that irritate the throat, such as alcohol, tobacco or acidic foods, should be avoided, as the tonsils become very sensitive during tonsillitis.
  • A gargle with water and salt (2.5 ml or ½ teaspoon of salt in a glass of water) helps reduce inflammation and pain. Antiseptic gargles can also be purchased from pharmacies.

In all cases, it's best to consult a healthcare professional for advice tailored to your situation.

Tonsillitis treatment

When a virus causes tonsillitis, no treatment is necessary. In fact, antibiotics are useless for eradicating viruses. Symptoms can be relieved with the above measures. The infection will disappear on its own after about one week.

If tonsillitis is caused by bacteria, most often streptococci, antibiotics are often required to treat the infection. A throat swab can confirm the presence or absence of bacteria.

Possible complications

In most cases, tonsillitis is uncomplicated and self-limiting. However, in rare cases, untreated streptococcal tonsillitis can lead to kidney or joint complications. That's why it's so important to take antibiotics for the full course of the prescribed treatment. And even if your condition improves, it's essential to continue the treatment to eliminate the bacteria completely.

In some cases, surgery to remove tonsils may be considered by your doctor. Surgery remains a last resort when there are repeated infections or complications from tonsillitis.

In conclusion

A sore throat can occur for many reasons, and in most cases, the body's natural defences need time to recover. Fortunately, there are many ways to get relief while waiting for the illness to run its course.

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