Strep Throat vs. Sore Throat

By Terez Malka, MD
Medically reviewed checkmarkMedically reviewed
May 6, 2022

Although a sore throat can be an annoyance, most of the time it resolves on its own within a week or two.

If the sore throat is a symptom of a viral illness like the common cold, you’ll be able to muster through it with home remedies or over-the-counter medication.

To help you out, in this article we’ll discuss the differences between strep throat and other causes of a sore throat, including their symptoms, causes, and treatments.

Then we’ll explain the precautions and risks that go along with strep throat, as well as when to see a healthcare provider or about any sore throat.

Strep Throat vs Sore Throat

Strep throat may present with similar symptoms to other causes of a sore throat.

While a viral sore throat and strep can be almost identical, there are a few symptoms that are more common with strep throat. 

Symptoms and causes of strep throat

Common symptoms of strep throat include:

  • Throat pain that comes on quickly
  • Pain with swallowing
  • Red, swollen tonsils
  • White patches on the tonsils
  • Tender, swollen lymph nodes and glands
  • Fever of 101° F or higher

Occasionally, symptoms may also include body aches or nausea and vomiting, especially in young children. 

Strep throat is caused by a contagious bacteria called Streptococcus pyogenes, or group A Streptococcus (group A strep).

When someone who has strep throat breathes they release droplets containing the bacteria into the air. If an uninfected person breathes in these droplets, they can contract the infection. 

You can also get strep through sharing food and drinks or touching an infected surface.

For example, if someone with strep touches their hand with their mouth, and then touches a doorknob, and then you touch that doorknob and touch your mouth, eyes, or nose, you may get strep.

Strep is not airborne, so it’s spread mostly through very close contact with someone who is ill or an object they have touched.

Symptoms and causes of a viral sore throat

A sore throat caused by viral illnesses can present in many ways, but some common symptoms of a viral sore throat include:

  • Scratchy or raw feeling in the throat
  • Pain that is aggravated by swallowing or talking
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Sore, swollen glands
  • Swollen tonsils
  • White patches on the tonsils, especially if the cause is mononucleosis or another common virus called adenovirus.
  • Change in voice, loss of voice, or hoarseness
  • Fever may or may not be present

Though many things can cause a sore throat, the most common cause is a viral infection such as the common cold.

Other viral infections that cause a sore throat include mono (mononucleosis), measles, chicken pox, and croup.

When a sore throat is caused by a virus, you’re likely to experience other symptoms such as runny nose, hoarseness, watery eyes, and cough.

These are not usually symptoms of strep throat.

Keep in mind, a sore throat is not always the sign of a virus or bacterial infection.

Allergies, environmental irritants or pollutants, strained vocal muscles, and GERD (acid reflux) can also cause a sore throat.

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Treatments for Each

To properly treat a sore throat, it is essential to understand its cause.

A physical examination and, if necessary, testing by a medical provider can help determine the cause and best course of treatment. 

Treatments for strep throat

To diagnose strep, healthcare providers may perform a rapid strep test.

This involves taking a sample from the back of the throat using a long cotton swab. 

Treatment for strep throat includes a round of oral antibiotic treatment, commonly penicillin or amoxicillin.

The appropriate antibiotics help shorten the duration of strep throat and decrease the risk of complications.

When waiting for a diagnosis or treatment, over-the-counter medications like acetaminophen (Tylenol) and NSAIDs (Ibuprofen, Advil, Motrin, and others) can help manage throat pain and reduce fever.

Treatments for viral sore throats

Unlike strep throat, which is a bacterial infection, many sore throats are caused by viral infections and cannot be treated with antibiotic medicine.

Antibiotics can even cause complications when used for viral sore throats.

When you wait for the virus to run its course, the following home remedies and OTC medication may help ease the discomfort: 

  • Drink warm liquids like tea and broth.
  • Gargle warm salt water.
  • Take over-the-counter pain relievers. 
  • Use benzocaine-containing lozenges or sore throat sprays. 

Precaution and Risks

Strep throat spreads easily.

The best way to prevent strep or any sore throat is to practice good hygiene:

  • Wash your hands often with soap and warm water.
  • Avoid sharing food and making direct contact with public drinking fountains. 
  • Avoid contact with sick people. 
  • Minimize touching your mouth and nose. 
  • Sanitize objects that are frequently used or touched.

Who is at increased risk of strep throat?

Compared to adults, children—particularly those ages 5-15—are more likely to get strep throat.

Due to the contagious nature of the bacteria, strep throat can often spread in places like schools and daycares.

If your child is diagnosed with strep throat, they can return to school after 24 hours without fever and at least 12 hours on antibiotics.

Adults aren’t immune. Those with school-age children or who are in contact with kids often are also at an increased risk of strep throat. 

However, 85-95% of sore throats at all ages are caused by viruses, and not by the strep bacteria. 

Rheumatic fever

In very rare cases, strep throat can cause rheumatic fever.

This can happen if strep throat is not treated properly.

After several weeks, the immune system sometimes attacks healthy tissue, triggering inflammation and damaging organs (such as the heart, joints, brain, and skin). 

Symptoms of rheumatic fever include fever, joint pain, fatigue, rash, and uncontrollable body movements.

This condition can cause heart problems like murmurs, enlarged heart, or fluid around the heart, as well as chronic heart disease.

So if you think you have strep throat, see a healthcare provider for testing.

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When to See a Healthcare Professional

If you have a persistent sore throat or have been in contact with someone diagnosed with strep throat, see a medical professional. 

Also seek immediate medical attention if you experience a sore throat combined with any of the following: 

  • Difficulty breathing or swallowing
  • High fever (above 104° F)
  • Blood in your saliva
  • Rash
  • Joint pain
  • Stiffness in your neck

How K Health Can Help

Did you know you can get affordable primary care with the K Health app? Download K to check your symptoms, explore conditions and treatments, and if needed text with a doctor in minutes. K Health’s AI-powered app is HIPAA compliant and based on 20 years of clinical data.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the difference between a sore throat and strep throat?
Although they may have similar symptoms, the main difference between a sore throat and strep throat is the cause. Strep throat is a bacterial infection caused by group A Streptococcus. It needs to be treated with antibiotics and is extremely contagious. On the other hand, many things can cause a sore throat. Most often, a viral infection like the common cold or flu is the cause. If your sore throat is caused by a viral infection, you may experience other symptoms like a runny nose and sneezing or coughing.
What are 3 symptoms of strep throat?
Three common symptoms of strep throat are: a sore throat that comes on quickly (and often causes pain when swallowing), small red spots on the back or roof of the mouth, and red, swollen tonsils.
Does strep throat hurt more than a sore throat?
Symptoms of strep throat can vary in severity from person to person and infection to infection. Generally speaking, strep throat symptoms may be more uncomfortable than a basic sore throat, as they often include difficulty and pain when swallowing, as well as fever and body aches.

K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

Terez Malka, MD

Dr. Terez Malka is a board-certified pediatrician and emergency medicine physician.