Strep Throat vs. Viral Sore Throat
Strep throat is caused by a type of bacteria called group A strep. Strep throat pain often feels the same as a sore throat caused by other bacteria or by viruses. The difference is that strep infections may cause rare but serious complications such as heart damage or kidney disease.
The vast majority of throat infections are viral and therefore not strep (approximately five to 15 percent of throat infections are caused by strep bacteria). Some bacterial infections require antibiotics but the most effective treatment for viral sore throat is rest and liquids.
- Swollen, red tonsils, often with a white or light-colored coating
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Body aches
- Runny nose or cough (with viral sore throat illnesses)
When to contact a clinician
Trouble breathing or swallowing
White or yellow patches on your tonsils
Sore throat lasts more than seven days
Had close physical contact with someone diagnosed with strep recently and you have strep symptoms
Skin rash and a sore throat
Enlarged lymph nodes that last for more than seven days
- Drink plenty of liquids
- Gargle with warm salt water to help with pain. Most recipes call for ¼ to ½ teaspoon of salt per 8 ounces (approximately 240 mL) of warm water.
- Cough drops or hard candy can soothe a dry, irritated throat
- Sore throat lozenges or sprays to numb the throat
- Use a vaporizer or hot shower steam to breathe in moist heat
- Take ibuprofen or acetaminophen for pain as directed. Do not take more than 2,400 mg of ibuprofen or 3,000 mg of acetaminophen per day. Avoid using aspirin if you are under 19 years old.
- Avoid smoking and smoky areas
To avoid catching or passing illnesses that can lead to a sore throat:
- Wash hands often
- Avoid touching the eyes, nose, and mouth
- Cough or sneeze into a tissue and then throw it away
- Eat healthily and stay well-rested
- Avoid close contact with people who are sick
- Don’t smoke and avoid exposure to secondhand smoke
- Do not share items that come in contact with the mouth such as lip balm, cups, straws, eating utensils, washcloths, smoking materials, or vape pens.
A clinician swabs the throat and sends the sample to the lab to test for group A strep. Rapid strep test results are available later that day. If the test is positive for strep throat, you will be contacted by a provider. Current guidelines do not recommend throat cultures for adults.
Other kinds of strep bacteria may be present in the culture, but these do not necessarily need antibiotics. Depending on the severity of illness, the provider may want to discuss symptoms and treatment.
Safe use of antibiotics
Antibiotics should only be taken when prescribed. Overuse of antibiotics can give rise to bacterial strains that are resistant to antibiotics and therefore more difficult to treat. Antibiotics can lead to yeast infections or diarrhea. Rarely, people experience allergic reactions to antibiotics. Inform your provider if you have allergies or if you’re currently taking any medications.
When taking antibiotics, remember to:
- Take antibiotics according to the instructions and for the full time specified, even if symptoms subside before treatment is completed. Patients who stop earlier are more likely to relapse or develop complications.
- Contact your provider if any side effects occur during treatment.