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Can inflammatory markers distinguish streptococcal from viral tonsillitis?

Three Part Question

In [patients presenting with tonsillitis] can [measurements of inflammatory markers] [differentiate between streptococcal and viral tonsillitis]?

Clinical Scenario

In the primary care setting, sore throat is a very common cause for consultation. However, the cause of tonsillitis is not known in many cases. Relying on clinical presentation and history alone is unreliable in differentiating streptococcal from viral tonsillitis, creating the problem of unnecessary and ineffective use of antibiotic therapy in many situations. Microbiological culture is the best way to establish an aetiological diagnosis, but is time consuming. The question therefore arises whether inflammatory markers such as C-reactive protein (CRP), erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR), white cell count (WCC) and procalcitonin (PCT) can differentiate streptococcal from viral tonsillitis.

Search Strategy

Medline (PubMed), EMBASE and the Cochrane Controlled Trials Register (CCTR) were searched separately for articles published in English before 30 April 2010.
Pubmed:[“tonsillitis” [MESH] OR “pharyngitis” [MESH] ]AND [“C-reactive protein” OR “leukocyte count” OR “erythrocyte sedimentation rate” OR “ procalcitonin”]. The references of all relevant articles were examined to identify any publications potentially not retrieved by the electronic searches.

Search Outcome

8 articles were identified from a total of 202 abstracts as fulfilling our selection criteria and provided information on the various inflammatory markers used in differentiating streptococcal from viral tonsillitis. A total of 1031 patients with sore throat were examined, of which 377 had positive culture results for streptococcal tonsillitis.

Relevant Paper(s)

Author, date and country Patient group Study type (level of evidence) Outcomes Key results Study Weaknesses
Putto A et al.
Case reports of 62 children mean age 4.9 years presenting to private paediatric practice and hospital with tonsillitis – defined by presence of tonsillar exudates and axillary or rectal temperature ≥38°C.Case-control study (level 3b)CRP, WCC, ESRDifference not significantP-values were not provided for all mean values. Retrospective analysis, which is prone to selection bias.
AgeMedian (range) ages (years): Adenoviral: 1.8 (0.5-10.5); EBV: 5.4 (1.5-16.0); Streptococcal: 7.5 (2.8-17.0), p<0.001
Ylikoski et al.
257 army conscripts age 18-27 years presenting to military hospital with sore throat, axillary temperature >38°C and local inflammatory changes in palatine tonsils. Excluded were patients who received antibiotics in preceding 2 weeks. Case control study (level 3b)CRPMean (SD): 70 (35) mg/L (Group A strep), 59 (7) mg/L (virus)P-values, confidence intervals and sensitivities and specificities were not calculated. Population group not representative of general population.
WCCMean (SD): 13.3 (4.3) x 109/L (Group A strep), 7.9 (2.4) x109/L (virus)
WCCSuggested cut-off level of >12 x109/L for group A strep
ESRNo significance
Tandeter et al
39 patients mean age 17.3 years presenting to a collection of 6 family practices with a sore throat and a clinical picture of streptococcal tonsillitis.Case-control study (level 3b)WCCMedian(range) streptococcal: 13,400/mm3 (4100 – 22,100); Sensitivity: 0.80; Specificity: 0.714; Positive predictive value: 0.833; Negative predictive value: 0.667, (p<0.01)No guidelines or standardisation regarding diagnostic criteria for streptococcal tonsillitis.
Hjortdhal et al
174 patients age >18 years old presenting to emergency department between 4pm to 9pm, with a chief complaint of sore throat. Case-control study (level 3b)CRPMean: 50.4mg/L streptococcal, 19.5mg/L viral. (p<0.01)Confidence interval of sensitivity, specificity, likelihood ratio and positive predictive values were not given.
CRPCRP levels >40mg/L had discriminatory properties if the fever lasted less than a week, and >20mg/L if a week or longer.
WCCMean: 12.1x109/L streptococcal, 8.8x109/L viral. (p<0.01)
WCCWCC cut-off value of 10 x109/L clinically useful.
ESRDifference not significant
Gulich et al
161 consecutive patients age ≥16 years presenting to general practice with sore throat.Prospective cohort study (level 2b)CRPCRP cut-off value of 35mg/L for bacterial tonsillitis: Sensitivity 0.78 (95%CI 0.61–0.90) Specificity 0.82 (0.73–0.88) Positive predictive value 0.57 (0.42-0.70) Negative predictive value 0.92 (0.85–0.96) Inclusion and exclusion criteria not specified. Definition of original presentation of sore throat unclear.
CRPROC: 0.85
WCCROC: 0.68
Elsammak et al.
45 patients mean age 4.91 years seen in paediatric emergency department, divided equally into 3 groups of healthy children, bacterial tonsillitis, and nonbacterial tonsillitis. Controls were healthy, non-anaemic children. Excluded were children who received any antibiotic therapy or with any renal, liver or systemic disease. Prospective cohort study (level 2b)PCTBest marker of streptococcal tonsillitis.All patients were evaluated after having fever ≥12 hours, which coincides with peak of PCT. CRP peaks at 48-72 hours. This could be a possible reason for the better specificity of PCT reported.
PCTMedian (range): 0.374ng/mL (0.11–6.5) bacterial, 0.105ng/mL (0.01–0.53) non-bacterial, 0.03ng/mL (0.01–0.08) control. (p<0.01)
PCTROC: 0.862
PCTCut-off 0.2275ng/mL: Sensitivity: 0.73; Specificity 0.87
CRPMedian (range): 50mg/L (22.4-71.1) bacterial, 23.6mg/L (5.9-61.2) non-bacterial, 2.6mg/L (0.9-6) control. (p<0.01)
CRPROC: 0.809
CRPCut-off 39.2 mg/L: Sensitivity 0.80; Specificity 0.73
WCCROC: 0.636
Wolf et al.
United Kingdom
120 patients mean age 25.04 years presented to ENT hospital department with EBV tonsillitis and 100 with bacterial tonsillitis – defined as symptoms of sore throat, pyrexia, dysphagia, odynophagia, redness of throat and tonsils, and white plaques on tonsils. Excluded were patients with quinsy, parapharyngeal or retropharyngeal abscesses, peritonsillitis or compromised immune systems.Case control study (level 3b)Lymphocyte/WCC ratioHigher in EBV than bacterial. Mean (SD) L/WCC ratio: 0.54 (0.14) vs 0.10 (0.08), p<0.01. Statistically significant difference in age between the patients with EBV and bacterial tonsillitis. Retrospective analysis.
L/WCC>0.35: Sensitivity 0.90 and specificity of 1.00 of EBV detection.
WCCHigher in bacterial than EBV. Mean (SD) WCC: 16560/µL (54100/µL) vs 11400/µL (4670/µL), p<0.01.
Lymphocyte countHigher in EBV than bacterial. Mean (SD): 6490/µL (3590/µL) vs 1590/µL (680/µL), p<0.01.
Neutrophil countHigher in bacterial than EBV. Mean (SD): 13770/µL (5230/µL) vs 3830/µL (1920/µL), p<0.01.
Peltola et al.
Children aged from 1 month to 16 years who presented to paediatric hospital outpatient clinics - identified according to CRP and WCC measurements. Excluded were temperature <38°C, ongoing treatment for malignancy, and missing records. Case control study (level 4).WCC and CRPNot sensitive to distinguish bacterial from viral infection. However, both WCC and CRP should be used together to improve accuracy.The comparison between streptococcal and viral tonsillitis was only a subset of the entire investigation. Retrospective analysis with arbitrarily determined ranges for inflammatory markers may both have introduced bias.


Where reported, WCC, CRP and PCT were significantly higher in patients with streptococcal tonsillitis. ESR was not different between the groups. Where a receiver operating characteristics (ROC) analysis was performed, PCT had a larger area under the curve at 0.86 compared to CRP at 0.80 and 0.85 in different studies. The eight studies included in this review had different approaches to comparing inflammatory markers between patients with and without streptococcal tonsillitis. Some studies compared the mean or median values of the parameters, while others explored a variety of arbitrary cut-offs to determine a value with the highest sensitivity and specificity. A minority performed a ROC analysis. This heterogeneity prevented a meta-analysis of these observational studies. The disparate results may also be due to the different timing of blood sampling in relation to duration of illness. As one study demonstrated, timing of blood sampling may influence which cut-off level has the best performance characteristics. The majority of studies did not comment on the timing of the determination of inflammatory markers in relation to duration of disease. Putto et al demonstrated that adenoviral tonsillitis is associated with high CRP and WBC levels, similar to streptococcal tonsillitis. Future studies comparing inflammatory markers in children with and without streptococcal tonsillitis need to investigate viral aetiology in the comparison group to enable a comparison of results of studies in different settings. Such a comparison may have to correct results for percentage of adenovirus tonsillitis. Only Ylikoski et al examined the differences in inflammatory markers in group A streptococci against non-group A streptococci and other bacterial aetiologies. CRP and WCC levels are also consistently higher in group A streptococcal tonsillitis when compared with non-group A streptococcal tonsillitis or other types of bacterial tonsillitis such as those caused by Streptococcus pneumoniae, Haemophilus influenzae or Moraxella catarrhalis. If studies only looked for bacteria in the form of positive cultures for group A streptococcus, patients with other undetected bacterial tonsillitis in the comparison group may have been missed, reducing what may have been a significant difference between groups if the comparison group had only included patients with definite viral tonsillitis. Future studies need to explore ROC analysis for all parameters to enable a comparison of studies. A marker with intrinsically high specificity for the detection of a bacterial infection like PCT should be explored in future studies regarding a cut-off with optimum sensitivity. PCT levels can be determined rapidly and could form part of an algorithm to aid decision making concerning antibiotic use in patients with tonsillitis.

Editor Comment

CRP, C reactive protein; ESR, erythrocyte sedimentation rate; PCT, procalcitonin; ROC, receiver operating characteristics; WCC, white cell count.

Clinical Bottom Line

WCC, CRP and PCT levels are higher in patients with streptococcal tonsillitis compared to patients with tonsillitis or pharyngitis without group A streptococcus isolated from a throat swab. Which of these markers has the best test performance characteristics requires further study.


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