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Throat Infections


The Manual's Editorial Staff

Last full review/revision Oct 2019| Content last modified Oct 2019
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What are throat infections?

Throat infections can involve the whole back of your throat or just your tonsils. Tonsils are small lumps of tissue in the back of your throat. Tonsils help fight infection but sometimes get infected themselves. Infection of the tonsils is called tonsillitis.

  • Everyone gets throat infections, but tonsillitis happens mostly to children

  • Throat infections are usually caused by a virus but may be caused by bacteria

  • Symptoms include severe pain when you swallow and swollen, red tonsils

  • If not treated, tonsillitis from bacteria rarely turns into a tonsillar abscess (a collection of pus behind your tonsils)

  • If you get tonsillitis very often, your doctor may do surgery to take out your tonsils (tonsillectomy)

What causes throat infections?

Throat infections are caused by:

  • A viral infection, such as the common cold (most common cause)

  • Sometimes, a bacterial infection, such as strep throat

What are the symptoms of throat infections?

Common symptoms are:

  • A sore throat that's worse when you swallow or talk

  • A red throat and tonsils

  • Swollen and tender lymph nodes in the neck

Lymph nodes are small bean-shaped tissues that help your body fight infection. Some people mistakenly call them "glands" and talk about having "swollen glands" when their throat is sore.

Sometimes, you may also get:

  • Pain in your ears

  • Fever

  • White patches on your tonsils

  • Bad breath

How can doctors tell if I have a throat infection?

Doctors can tell if your throat is infected by looking in your throat and seeing that it's red. Sometimes they'll swab your throat and do a strep test, to see if strep throat is causing the infection.

Sometimes people think that big, red, swollen tonsils with white patches means it's strep throat. That's not true. All kinds of throat infections can look that way, not just strep.

How do doctors treat a throat infection?

Doctors treat throat infections with:

  • Over-the-counter pain medicine, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen

  • Sometimes, corticosteroids to help the symptoms go away faster

  • Antibiotics, but only if you have a bacterial infection, such as strep throat

If you get severe tonsillitis from strep throat very often, your doctor may recommend surgery to take out your tonsils (tonsillectomy).

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