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Got a sore throat? Wonder if your painful sore throat is from a cold, strep throat, or tonsillitis? Here's help with how to tell.

What's the Difference Between a Cold, Strep Throat, 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.

Strep throat, which is an infection due to streptococcus bacteria, is another cause of sore throats and tonsillitis. With strep throat, the sore throat is often more severe and persists. 

Tonsillitis is a painful inflammation or infection of the tonsils, the tissue masses located at the back of the throat.

Is a Sore Throat With a Cold Caused by Viruses or Bacteria?

Sore throats can be caused by viruses or bacteria. The most common causes of sore throats are viruses. Viral sore throats are often accompanied by other cold symptoms that may include a runny nose, cough, red or watery eyes, and sneezing. Other causes of sore throat include smoking, pollution or irritants in the air, allergies, and dry air.

Along With a Sore Throat, What are Other Cold Symptoms?

In addition to a sore throat, other common cold symptoms include:

  • Runny nose
  • Sneezing
  • Cough
  • Mild headache
  • Mild body aches
  • Fever

How Are Sore Throats With Colds Treated?

Although there is no cure for a sore throat caused by a cold virus, there are ways to help you feel more comfortable. Drinking warm liquids, gargling with warm salt water, sucking on ice chips, or taking an over-the-counter medicine may relieve symptoms of pain or fever. When you are sick with a cold, it is also important to get enough rest, eat a healthy diet, and drink plenty of fluids.

Can Medications 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 drugs are minimal. Some cold medications include:

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

Antibiotics should not be used to treat a cold virus and sore throat. Antibiotics are effective only against bacteria. They will not work on sore throats associated with colds, which are caused by viruses.