Open Accessibility Menu

Strep throat vs. sore throat: clearing up the confusion

Strep throat vs. sore throat: clearing up the confusion

Strep throat vs. sore throat—it’s not a competition between two distinct medical conditions. It’s more of a cause-and-effect relationship.

Strep throat vs. sore throat: bacteria and viruses

Understanding the difference between strep throat and sore throat starts by defining the terms. Strep throat is an infection of the throat and tonsils by group A Streptococcus, or strep, bacteria. Strep infection is most common in children and teenagers. Still, adults can get it, too, especially if they spend a lot of time around children.

A sore throat is a symptom of a throat infection, not a medical condition in its own right. The main symptom of strep throat, a sore throat can also develop for other reasons, such as the flu or another viral illness. In fact, most sore throats are due to viruses.

If you have a sore throat, it won’t turn into strep throat. Instead, it could be a sign that you have strep throat—or a viral infection. Finding out the cause of a sore throat is important to determine the most appropriate treatment.

Sore throat and other symptoms: what strep throat feels like

How bad is your sore throat? The answer may hold a clue as to its cause. A sore throat due to strep throat typically causes pain when swallowing. What’s more, it may be more painful than a sore throat from a virus. With strep throat, a sore throat may develop quickly.

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

  • Fever
  • Red marks on the roof of the mouth
  • Swollen lymph nodes in the neck
  • White patches in the throat or on the tonsils

How can you tell if you have a viral infection instead of strep throat? Consider all of your symptoms. If you have a runny nose, hoarse voice, cough or pink eye, and a sore throat, the infection is likely viral, not a strep infection.

Strep throat or something else? Pinpointing the cause of a sore throat

If your primary care provider suspects strep throat, they will swab your throat to obtain a sample to test for strep. A rapid strep test can quickly show whether strep bacteria are present, but occasionally, it fails to detect the germs.

If your primary care provider suspects a false-negative result from a rapid strep test, they may order a throat culture. This is a test to see if strep bacteria grow from the throat sample. It’s a longer process than a rapid strep test, but a throat culture may find more cases of strep throat than the faster test.

Confirming a strep throat diagnosis with a throat culture—and starting antibiotics, the standard treatment for strep throat—is especially important for children and teenagers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). That’s because young people have a higher risk of strep throat-related rheumatic fever than adults.

The path to move past throat pain

Strep throat may go away in several days without treatment, but why feel miserable and put yourself at risk of complications waiting for the illness to run its course? Getting treated with antibiotics can help you feel better sooner and reduce your risk of complications.

According to the CDC, you may notice an improvement in symptoms as soon as 24 hours after starting antibiotics. Just be sure to finish the entire course of medication, no matter how quickly you start feeling better.

Wondering whether a sore throat is due to a strep infection or something else? Request an appointment with a primary care provider who can find the answer and recommend a treatment.