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How to Tell the Difference Between a Sore Throat and Strep Throat

You wake up with a scratchy throat. But what do you do next? Do you reach for hot tea or call a doctor? It depends.

If a sore throat is caused by a cold or flu, you may be able to wait it out and treat it at home. If it’s caused by strep throat, however, you’ll need to go to a doctor to get antibiotics. Here are ways to tell the difference between the two, and why those differences are so important. But be careful: It can be difficult to tell a sore throat and strep throat apart, so a visit to a doctor for a definite diagnosis is often the right move.

Table of contents:

  • What are the symptoms of a sore throat?
  • What causes a sore throat?
  • What is strep throat?
  • What are the symptoms of strep throat?
  • What causes strep throat?
  • How is a sore throat treated?
  • How is strep throat treated?
  • How can I prevent a sore throat?
  • How can I prevent strep throat?
  • How do I get an appointment with a doctor for a strep throat diagnosis or treatment?

What are the symptoms of a sore throat?

A sore throat may:

  • Cause pain while swallowing or make it difficult to swallow.
  • Create a feeling of scratchiness
  • Make your voice sound hoarse
  • Cause white spots on your tongue
  • Cause swollen glands in your neck or swollen tonsils

What causes a sore throat?

Many things can cause a sore throat. A sore throat can result from allergies, dry air or irritants in the air. It can also be due to muscle strain, like cheering loudly at a game or talking loudly at a party.

In addition, a sore throat may be caused by a virus or bacteria. When it’s brought on by a cold or the flu, that’s a viral infection and it will usually resolve on its own. When it’s brought on by strep throat, however, that’s caused by bacteria, and it’ll require antibiotics to treat.

Rare causes of a sore throat include gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), HIV and tumors.

What is strep throat?

Strep throat is a bacterial infection that leads to a sore throat, along with some of the symptoms listed below. It’s more common in children than adults, but adults who are around children often, parents and teachers, for example,  have an increased risk of strep throat.

What are the symptoms of strep throat?

With strep throat, people can develop the following symptoms:

  • Sudden sore throat
  • Small dark red spots on the roof of the mouth
  • White spots on the tongue or tonsils
  • Fever
  • Swollen lymph nodes in the neck

What causes strep throat?

The culprit behind strep throat is something called group A Streptococcus bacteria. This bacteria, which live in your nose, mouth and skin, can also lead to ear and sinus infections.

How can I tell the difference between a sore throat and strep throat?

Usually, strep throat does not occur along with a cough, runny nose or pink eye. If you have these symptoms along with a sore throat, it’s likely that a viral infection is at the root of your illness.

It can be very difficult to tell the difference between a sore throat and strep throat by symptoms alone, however. Visit a doctor, who can take a rapid strep test or a throat culture to diagnose your illness properly to guide your next steps.

How is a sore throat treated?

If you don’t have strep throat but your sore throat is due to a viral infection, you can often treat it at home. Acetaminophen (Tylenol) can alleviate the pain of a sore throat. Some home remedies to ease a sore throat include gargling warm salt water and drinking hot chamomile tea. Typically, a sore throat due to a bacterial infection will last five to seven days. If your sore throat persists longer than that, please see a doctor.

How is strep throat treated?

If your doctor determines that you have strep throat, they will likely prescribe antibiotics like penicillin or amoxicillin to treat strep throat. Once treated, strep throat tends to heal quickly.

It’s important that you treat strep throat with proper antibiotics. If strep throat continues without treatment, it can progress and cause complications like kidney inflammation and rheumatic fever.

How can I prevent a sore throat?

To prevent a sore throat, follow the usual good hygiene tips that you use to avoid a cold or flu, including:

  • Wash your hands regularly with warm water and soap for at least 20 seconds.
  • Don’t touch your face.
  • Regularly disinfect your phone, keyboard, light switches and anything else you touch often.
  • Try to maintain distance from people who are sick.
  • Support your immune system with a healthy diet, proper sleep and fluids.

How can I prevent strep throat?

Strep throat is contagious, so the key to avoiding strep throat is avoiding people who have sore throats who may already have strep throat.

How do I get an appointment with a doctor for strep throat diagnosis or treatment?

If you live near Anderson or Clemson, S.C., AnMed Health CareConnect Services offer urgent care services with no appointment needed. If you’d like, however, you can reserve your spot for either location. There, you can get the diagnosis – and, if necessary, the prescription – you need to heal from your sore throat.

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