woman with sore throat

Sore Throat? Is It a Cold, Strep Throat, or Tonsillitis?

For many common ailments, a sore throat is the typical starting point. Each time that scratchy or painful feeling starts in your throat, you immediately wonder what’s coming next: Is it a cold? Strep throat? Something more severe?

Luckily, there are several easy ways to tell what your sore throat means. Depending on what other symptoms you have, you can start to determine where your sore throat will lead.

And of course, if you become worried about your sore throat, you can always make a quick trip to visit your primary care doctor or a UPMC Urgent Care location.

Why Do I Have a Cough?

Together, a sore throat and cold are often signs you have a cold, which is a form of viral infection. You might have some of the following symptoms:

Treating a cold

There’s no cure for a viral cold or common cold, but you can still use one of these methods to reduce the pain of your sore throat.

  • Take an over-the-counter pain reliever (ibuprofen, acetaminophen, naproxen)
  • Suck on throat lozenges or ice cubes
  • Drink warm liquids, like hot tea, or gargle with warm saltwater
  • For a sore throat caused by drainage from nasal congestion, try a nasal decongestant spray

RELATED: How to Treat Common Cold and Flu Symptoms

Is It a Cold or Strep Throat?

If you think you have strep throat, the best course of action is to visit your doctor, because strep throat can cause other health issues if left untreated.

Your doctor can do a quick strep test by using a cotton swab to get a small sample from the back of your throat. Some tell-tale signs that you have strep and should get checked out are:

  • Extreme sore throat that lasts for days (a sore throat from a cold will usually go away after the first day or two)
  • Lack of coughing. Strep does not usually include coughing as a symptom
  • Loss of appetite and/or difficulty swallowing
  • Fever or vomiting
  • Red tonsils and/or white spots on the back of the throat

Treating strep throat

Strep throat is caused by a bacterial infection, so your doctor can prescribe an antibiotic to kill the bacteria and get rid of your symptoms.

    • In the meantime, try drinking warm liquids or sucking on throat lozenges to make you more comfortable.
    • If you do get a prescription, make sure you finish all of your medicine, even if you’re feeling better.
    • Also, be sure to tell your doctor if any of your symptoms become more severe, don’t go away, or return after you feel better.
    • Remember, strep throat is contagious, so don’t return to work or school for at least 24 hours if you are infected to avoid spreading it to others.
endocrinologist appointment

Is It Strep or Tonsillitis?

It’s possible that your sore throat is a symptom of tonsillitis or inflammation of the tonsils. If that’s the case, you may have some of the following symptoms:

  • Swollen tonsils with white and/or yellow spots
  • Fever
  • Voice changes due to swelling
  • Bad breath

Tonsillitis can be caused by a viral infection, meaning it cannot be treated, or a bacterial infection, meaning an antibiotic can be prescribed. Visit your doctor if tonsillitis persists.

RELATED: What Are Tonsil Stones?

If the condition occurs and won’t clear up, your doctor may recommend a surgical removal of the tonsils, or tonsillectomy.