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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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
- Joint pain
- Stiffness in your neck
How K Health Can Help
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