What is the difference between a sore throat and strep throat?
Many things can cause that unpleasant, scratchy, and sometimes painful condition known as a sore throat. Viruses, bacteria, allergens, environmental irritants (such as cigarette smoke), and chronic postnasal drip can all cause a sore throat. While many sore throats will get better without treatment, some throat infections—including strep throat—may need antibiotic treatment.
Strep throat is an infection in the throat and tonsils caused by group A Streptococcus bacteria (called "group A strep"), which spread through contact with droplets from an infected person's cough or sneeze. Unlike sore throats caused by viruses, strep throat is treated with antibiotics prescribed by a physician.
What are the symptoms of strep throat?
In general, strep throat is a mild infection, but it can be very painful. Symptoms of strep throat usually include:
- Sore throat that can start very quickly
- Pain when swallowing
- Red and swollen tonsils, sometimes with white patches or streaks of pus
- Tiny, red spots (petechiae) on the roof of the mouth (the soft or hard palate)
- Swollen lymph nodes in the front of the neck
Other symptoms may include a headache, stomach pain, nausea, or vomiting — especially in children. Someone with strep throat may also have a rash known as scarlet fever (also called scarlatina). It usually takes two to five days for someone exposed to group A strep to become ill.
Cough, runny nose, hoarseness (changes in your voice that makes it sound breathy, raspy, or strained), and conjunctivitis (also called pink eye) are not symptoms of strep throat and suggest that a virus is the cause of the illness.
How do I know for sure if I have strep throat?
Your clinician can swab your throat to quickly see if group A strep bacteria are causing your sore throat; looking at your throat is not enough to make a diagnosis. If the test is positive, antibiotics will be prescribed to help you get well quickly, prevent complications, and keep you from spreading the infection.
What should I do if I am diagnosed with strep throat?
People with strep throat should stay home from work, school, or daycare until they have taken antibiotics for at least 24 hours. Antibiotics taken for strep throat reduce the length of time you’re sick and help prevent the spread of infection to friends and family members.
(Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: https://www.cdc.gov/groupastrep/diseases-public/strep-throat.html; https://www.cdc.gov/dotw/strepthroat/index.html)