If you’ve had the sniffles this winter, you probably need no reminder that some illnesses and viruses are seasonal. However, it’s important to remember many bacteria can strike at anytime, and viruses capable of causing tonsil infections (tonsillitis) can occur at any point. Since the signs of a throat infection can often be subtle, let’s walk through the most common types of infections, the symptoms they may cause, and best courses of treatment for each.
Strep throat is caused by a strain of the bacteria Streptococcus, and can affect anyone older than 6 months. Strep throat can present as any combination of sore throat, fever, abdominal pain, vomiting, headache, or rash on the chest and abdomen. This type of infection is best treated with an antibiotic. It’s certainly important to relieve the symptoms of strep throat, but it’s more important to prevent rheumatic fever, which is a life-threatening attack from the body’s immune system on the heart, blood vessels, and kidneys that can develop if strep throat is treated inadequately. Luckily, rheumatic fever is rare now, due to the accurate diagnosis and prompt treatment of strep throat.
Mononucleosis (mono) is another common infection of the throat caused most commonly by Ebstein Barr Virus (EBV) and Cytomegalovirus (CMV). The virus causes fever, sore throat, and weakness. It is spread through saliva – from sharing drinks or kissing – and symptoms usually start 4-6 weeks after exposure to the virus. There is no treatment medication-wise. The body fights off the virus, and this creates symptoms like intense fatigue that last up to 3 months.
Abscesses are pockets of pus that are walled off and unable to drain. They can occur anywhere in the body, and when they occur in the mouth it is usually in or around the tonsils. This usually presents as fever, severe sore throat, hoarseness, and ear pain from swelling. These are usually treated with a combination of steroids, antibiotics, and an ENT or surgeon draining the abscesses when too large.
The most common cause for sore throat is a viral tonsillitis. Many different viruses can be the culprit for this nuisance, and the illness usually lasts 3-5 days. It looks almost identical to strep throat in terms of symptoms, but the test for strep will show up negative. Unfortunately no antibiotic relieves the symptoms; in fact, they can worsen it by causing a reactive rash. Tylenol or Motrin will help relieve the pain and fever. Gargling honey or salt water, drinking cold drinks, or eating ice cream may ease the throat pain. It is also important to stay hydrated and get plenty of rest, as the body needs to focus its energy on killing the virus.
All of these causes for sore throat can have identical symptoms, so it’s especially important to seek medical attention to determine the best course of treatment if you suspect an infection.