Strep Throat vs. Sore Throat: What's the Difference?

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young woman with sore throat, squeezing eyes shut with painful swallowing

The symptoms of a sore throat are unmistakable: Your throat feels scratchy. Swallowing hurts.

Figuring out whether you have strep throat or a sore throat is a bit more complicated. Strep throat is a specific type of sore throat; it is an infection caused by group A Streptococcus bacteria. (The “strep” in strep throat is short for Streptococcus.) Learning the differences between simple sore throats and strep throat can help you make informed decisions about when to seek medical care.

Strep Throat or Sore Throat?

Most sore throats are not strep throat. Many things can cause throat pain, including allergies, dry air, mouth breathing, colds, influenza, and mononucleosis.

Viruses—including cold and flu viruses—are the most common cause of sore throat. And although a viral sore throat can make you feel miserable, it typically doesn’t threaten your overall health. Medical treatment is not necessary, and most people feel better within a week to 10 days.

Strep throat, on the other hand, is always caused by strep bacteria. Medical treatment is usually advised because untreated strep throat can cause serious complications, including rheumatic fever (an inflammatory condition that can affect the heart, nervous system, joints, and skin), scarlet fever (which can also damage the heart and kidneys if untreated), kidney inflammation, and a type of arthritis. Appropriate diagnosis and treatment of strep throat greatly decrease the likelihood of developing strep throat-related complications.

Viral sore throats are usually accompanied by a cough, congestion, or runny nose. These symptoms are not usually present with strep throat, which can be very painful. High fevers are also common in children who have strep throat, though it’s possible to have strep and not have a fever. A peek into the mouth may reveal red and white patches on the back of the throat.

Testing for Strep Throat

If you suspect strep throat, or your sore throat is getting worse instead of better, schedule an appointment with a healthcare provider. The only way to know for sure whether a sore throat is strep throat is to check for the presence of Streptococcus bacteria. Healthcare providers do this by swabbing the back of the throat with a large cotton swab.

Rapid strep tests can be performed in the office and results are typically available within 5 minutes. If the result is positive, the diagnosis is strep throat, and your healthcare provider will prescribe antibiotics to treat the infection. The antibiotics will help you feel better and decrease the risk of complications.

If the rapid stress test is negative, it’s possible you may still have strep throat. Your healthcare provider will send a sample swabbed from the back of your throat for laboratory culture testing to see if strep bacteria are present. A throat culture, as this test is called, can pick up some strep infections that rapid tests do not. It may take a few days to get the results. If your healthcare provider believes that strep is likely, based on your symptoms, the provider may start you on antibiotics immediately, before knowing the throat culture result.

If you are prescribed antibiotics for strep throat, it is important to take the medicine as prescribed. Do not stop taking your antibiotic when you feel better. Stopping your antibiotic can allow the strep bacteria to grow back and may facilitate the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Sore Throat Remedies

The same home remedies can soothe simple sore throats and strep throat. Try some of these time-tested throat soothers:

  • Gargle with warm salt water. (Mix ¼-1 teaspoon of salt, to taste, with a cup of warm water.)
  • Drink plenty of liquids. Some people find cool liquids soothing; others prefer warm beverages.
  • Take an over-the-counter pain reliever and fever reducer. Ibuprofen and acetaminophen are good choices. (Never give aspirin to a child younger than 18 years of age.)
  • Suck on throat lozenges, ice, or popsicles.
  • Get plenty of rest. Adequate sleep facilitates healing.

Don’t hesitate to call your healthcare provider if you need help determining whether a sore throat is strep throat.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Dec 15
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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  2. Strep Throat. Nemours Foundation.
  3. Sore Throat. MedlinePlus, U.S. National Library of Medicine.
  4. Sore Throat. American Academy of Family Physicians.
  5. Strep Throat: All You Need to Know. U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.