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Pharyngitis and Tonsillitis

What are pharyngitis and tonsillitis?

Pharyngitis and tonsillitis are infections that cause inflammation. If the tonsils are affected, it is called tonsillitis. If the throat is affected, it is called pharyngitis. If you have both, it’s called pharyngotonsillitis. These infections are spread by close contact with others. Most cases happen during the winter or colder months.

What causes pharyngitis and tonsillitis?

There are many causes of infections in the throat. Viruses are the most common cause and antibiotics will not help. Causes of throat infections include: 

  • Viruses (most common)
  • Bacteria (such as strep)
  • Fungal infections
  • Parasitic infections
  • Cigarette smoke
  • Other causes

What are the symptoms of pharyngitis and tonsillitis?

The symptoms of pharyngitis and tonsillitis depend greatly on what’s causing it. For some people, symptoms may start quickly. For others, symptoms start slowly. These are the most common symptoms of pharyngitis and tonsillitis:

  • Sore throat
  • Fever (either low- or high-grade)
  • Headache
  • Loss in appetite
  • Not feeling well
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Stomach aches
  • Painful swallowing
  • Redness or drainage in the throat

The symptoms of pharyngitis and tonsillitis may look like other medical conditions or problems. Always check with your healthcare provider for a diagnosis.

How are pharyngitis and tonsillitis diagnosed?

In most cases, it is hard to tell the difference between a viral sore throat and a strep throat based on physical exam. It is important, though, to know if the sore throat is caused by strep bacteria, as this calls for antibiotics to help prevent the complications that can happen with these bacteria.

As a result, most people, when they have the above symptoms, will get a strep test and throat culture to find out if it is an infection caused by strep. This will involve a throat swab in the healthcare provider’s office.

Quick tests, called rapid strep tests, may be done. This may immediately show as positive for strep and antibiotics can be started. If it is negative, part of the throat swab will be kept for a throat culture. This will further identify strep in 2 to 3 days. Your healthcare provider will discuss the treatment plan with you based on the findings.

How are pharyngitis and tonsillitis treated?

Your healthcare provider will figure out the best treatment based on:

  • How old you are
  • His or her overall health and medical history
  • How sick you are
  • How well you can handle specific medicines, procedures, or therapies
  • How long the condition is expected to last
  • Your opinion or preference

If bacteria are not the cause of the infection, the treatment is usually more for comfort. Antibiotics will not help treat viral sore throats. Treatment may include:

  • Acetaminophen or ibuprofen (for pain)
  • Increased fluid intake
  • Throat lozenges
  • Gargling with warm salt water

Antibiotics are prescribed if the cause of the infection is bacterial.

What are the complications of pharyngitis and tonsillitis?

Most cases of pharyngitis and tonsillitis will run their course without any complications. But, if the disease is caused by strep, rare complications, including rheumatic fever, rheumatic heart disease, and kidney disease can happen. Treatment with antibiotics can prevent these complications.

When to call your healthcare provider

If a sore throat is severe and includes trouble swallowing, drooling, or neck swelling, see a healthcare provider right away.

Key points about pharyngitis and tonsillitis

  • Pharyngitis and tonsillitis are infections in the throat that cause inflammation
  • Pharyngitis and tonsillitis can be caused by viruses, bacteria, fungi, parasites, and cigarette smoking
  • Most infections are caused by viruses. Antibiotics do not cure a viral infection, and should not be used
  • If a bacterial infection is diagnosed, it will be treated with antibiotics
  • Pharyngitis and tonsillitis can be treated with pain relievers, increased fluid intake, throat lozenges, and gargling with warm salt water

Next steps

Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your healthcare provider:

  • Know the reason for your visit and what you want to happen.
  • Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
  • Bring someone with you to help you ask questions and remember what your provider tells you.
  • At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis, and any new medicines, treatments, or tests. Also write down any new instructions your provider gives you.
  • Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed, and how it will help you. Also know what the side effects are.
  • Ask if your condition can be treated in other ways.
  • Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the results could mean.
  • Know what to expect if you do not take the medicine or have the test or procedure.
  • If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.
  • Know how you can contact your provider if you have questions.
Online Medical Reviewer: Freeborn, Donna, PhD, CNM, FNP
Online Medical Reviewer: Kacker, Ashutosh, MD
Last Review Date: 8/1/2016
© 2000-2016 The StayWell Company, LLC. 780 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.