Sore Throat vs. Strep Throat

Man resting in bed, surrounded by used facial tissues; sore throat vs. strep throat?

Battling a sore throat can be extremely uncomfortable, and it can be hard to tell whether you’re fighting a virus or dealing with a case of strep throat. Mervin Casey, PA-C, UnityPoint Health, explains the signs and symptoms of each, as well as the best treatment plan – including when you might need to make a trip to the doctor.

Strep Throat Symptoms 

Casey says while the symptoms of strep throat and a sore throat can seem similar, there will be noticeable differences.

"The biggest similarities between a sore throat and strep throat are discomfort at rest and when swallowing," Casey says. "When telling the difference between a sore throat from strep, keep in mind strep throat is often times not preceded by the typical other symptoms that go along with a viral sore throat. If a patient has symptoms of congestion, post nasal drip and cough and then complains of sore throat, this would indicate a possible viral upper respiratory tract infection. With strep, the sore throat is usually the first symptom we typically see."

To be sure you’re not suffering from strep, take your temperature. Another sign of strep throat is the fever that usually goes along with it. Additionally, look at the color of your tongue.

"Strep infections are normally accompanied by a fever of greater than 101, headache and muscle pain. Other symptoms of strep throat include strawberry tongue and a rash known commonly as Scarlet Fever, named after the red nature of the rash," Casey says.

Did you know strep is treatable by UnityPoint Health Virtual Care?

Viral Sore Throat vs. Strep Throat Treatment 

Based on your symptoms, if you believe you have strep throat, you need to be seen by your primary care provider.

“If someone, child or adult, is diagnosed with strep throat, they will need to be on antibiotics for 24 hours before returning to school or work, as they will be contagious during this time,” Casey says.

Sore throats caused by viral infections still might require being seen in the clinic, depending on the severity of symptoms, while others can be managed at home through over-the-counter medications.

"In general, most sore throats are self-limited and will resolve on their own. But, if a sore throat begins with early symptoms lasting longer than 5-7 days and is accompanied by fever, chills, headache or marked fatigue, this too, should be evaluated by a clinician. There are definitely over-the-counter remedies for viral sore throats that can help with symptom relief. Decongestants and nasal saline can go a long way in helping to give the mucous membranes around the sinuses a break. Otherwise, the best remedy for a viral infection is staying hydrated and active," Casey says.

Sore Throat Causes 

Sore throats can be caused by a variety of factors, like viral infections, allergies and more. Casey encourages patients to watch symptoms closely, and when in doubt, call your clinic.

"The vast majority of sore throat complaints are viral in nature, with self-limited courses and are best treated symptomatically, rather than taking antibiotics. That being said, certain viruses can certainly hit harder than others. For example, while the treatment for mononucleosis (mono) is symptomatic, diagnosis can be important. If you have any questions whatsoever about sore throat symptoms you or anyone in your family is experiencing, don’t hesitate to call your UnityPoint Health provider," Casey says.

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