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Sore throat: A cold or tonsillitis?

Do you have a sore throat? Do you wonder if your painful sore throat is from a cold, or viral or bacterial tonsillitis? Here's how to tell.

What's the difference between a cold and tonsillitis?

A sore throat is often the first sign of a cold. However, a sore throat from a cold often gets better or goes away after the first day or two. Other cold symptoms such as a runny nose and congestion may follow the sore throat.

Tonsillitis is a painful infection of the tonsils, the tissue masses located on either side of the back of the throat. It can be caused by a virus or by bacteria. When bacteria are responsible for this infection Streptococcus bacteria is often the cause.

To determine the cause of your sore throat, your doctor may do a throat swab. However, there may be some clues. Viral sore throats are often accompanied by other cold symptoms that may include a runny nose, cough, red or watery eyes and sneezing.

Along with a sore throat, what are other cold symptoms?

Other cold symptoms include the following:

  • Runny nose
  • Sneezing
  • Coughing
  • Headache
  • Nasal congestion
  • Raised temperature (which may or may not be present) that is more likely in children

How are sore throats with colds treated?

While there is no cure for a sore throat caused by a cold virus, to encourage healing of your sore throat and cold, be sure to get enough rest. Eating a healthy diet and drinking plenty of fluids can also help promote healing.

Can medication relieve symptoms of a sore throat with a cold?

Over-the-counter cold medications may relieve cold and sore throat symptoms. However, the benefits of these medications are minimal. Some cold medications include the following:

  • Pain relievers, such as paracetamol and ibuprofen, to relieve the aches and pains of a cold and sore throat. (Aspirin should not be given to children under the age of 16 because of its link to Reye's syndrome, a disorder that may cause brain damage and death.)
  • Sore throat sprays and lozenges to soothe your throat and numb the throat pain temporarily.
  • Decongestant nasal sprays to relieve a sore throat caused by postnasal drip ie: nasal drainage that runs down the back of your throat. Stop using nasal decongestant sprays after three days, or you may find an increase in congestion when you stop them.

Antibiotics should not be used to treat a cold virus or viral sore throat. Antibiotics are only effective against bacteria. They won’t work on sore throats associated with colds, which are caused by viruses, and may cause future infections to be worse and last longer.

Are tonsillitis symptoms different than the symptoms of a sore throat with a cold?

In addition to a sore throat, a cold usually causes nasal symptoms, such as runny nose or congestion. With tonsillitis, your tonsils become swollen and may have telltale white or yellow spots. The symptoms of tonsillitis infection are usually more severe than symptoms of a sore throat with a cold and may include the following:

  • Sudden sore throat
  • Painful swallowing
  • Loss of appetite
  • Red tonsils with white spots
  • Headache
  • Bad breath
  • Fever
  • Voice changes because of swelling
  • Swollen lymph glands in neck
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