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Is It Just a Sore Throat or Is It Strep Throat?

May 01, 2023

School is back in session after the holiday break, and your child quickly comes home with a sore throat. Is it strep throat? 

Every year, more than 600 million people worldwide come down with a case of strep throat. But while strep is an incredibly common cause of a sore throat, it’s not the only one.

Laurel Campbell, MD

Read on as Laurel Campbell, MD, an internist and primary care provider with West Tennessee Medical Group Primary Care in Dyersburg answers some common questions.

Q: What Is Strep Throat?
A: Strep throat is a bacterial infection that causes a sore throat, more formally known as pharyngitis. The infection, which is caused by group A Streptococcus (or group A strep), most often occurs in children between the ages of 5 and 15, but can be diagnosed in anyone of any age.

Because strep throat is passed from person to person through respiratory droplets and direct contact, it is very contagious and can quickly spread from one family member to the next. That’s also why it commonly spreads through classrooms of children.

The bacteria responsible for strep throat usually hangs out in the nose and throat. When someone with this bacteria coughs or sneezes, respiratory droplets containing the bacteria float into the air. Breathing in those respiratory droplets or touching something with the droplets on it and then touching your face can spread the illness.

Q: What Symptoms Will Strep Throat Cause?
A: Symptoms of strep throat typically start between two and five days after coming into contact with strep A bacteria. If your child has strep throat, he or she may experience:

  • A sore throat
  • Chills
  • Fever that begins suddenly (100.4 or higher)
  • Pain when swallowing
  • Redness in the throat, sometimes with white patches
  • Swollen glands in the neck

Because strep throat is a bacterial infection, your child may also experience some other symptoms commonly associated with feeling sick. These can include a loss of appetite, headache, and nausea and vomiting.

In some cases, a rash may also occur, typically popping up first on the neck and chest before spreading.

Q: What’s the Difference Between a Regular Sore Throat and Strep Throat?
A: That’s a great question! A sore throat is a common symptom associated with many different illnesses, including the common cold and allergies.

If your child has a sore throat that’s caused by a virus, like the common cold or the flu, he or she will probably also experience other symptoms indicative of a virus, such as nasal congestion, a cough, or a runny nose. 

In most cases, someone who has strep throat will experience a sore throat without the accompanying cold-like symptoms, such as a runny nose. But the only way to know for certain what’s causing your child’s sore throat is to visit a medical provider.

Your child’s pediatrician or primary care provider can perform a rapid test to detect the presence of strep A bacteria. If the test is positive, it indicates strep throat. Even if it isn’t positive, the sample from a throat culture may be sent for further testing if strep throat is suspected.

Q: How Is Strep Throat Treated?
A: If your child is diagnosed with strep throat, antibiotics will be prescribed. It’s important to take the antibiotics exactly as prescribed, not stopping them when your child feels better. That’s because bacteria can still be present even after your child’s sore throat eases, so finishing the course of treatment is important. 

Your child can usually return to school after he or she has taken antibiotics for at least 12 hours and no longer has a fever without the help of a fever-reducing medication like acetaminophen. 

To keep the illness from spreading to other members of the family, ensure anything that comes in contact with your child, including utensils, sheets, and towels, is carefully sanitized and not shared with other people. Give surfaces and objects in your home, like doorknobs and light switches, a good cleaning, too. And be sure to frequently wash your hands and encourage everyone in the family to wash theirs, too.

It’s also a good idea to change out your child’s toothbrush once he or she is no longer contagious.

Q: Should I Be Concerned About Invasive Strep?
A: You may have seen alarming headlines lately about strep A infections. There has been an increase in recent months of strep A bacterial infections that go beyond the throat, causing serious infections in other parts of the body, like the lungs or the blood.

Researchers aren’t quite sure what’s causing the increased number of cases, but they may occur when a virus, like COVID-19, weakens the body and its immune system. If your child is experiencing any symptoms that seem unusual or disconcerting to you, it’s best to seek the guidance of a medical provider.

While invasive strep A can cause serious effects, a quick test can determine its presence and antibiotics can be prescribed to stop the bacteria in its tracks. Trust your gut, and talk to your pediatrician.

Wondering whether your child has strep throat? A quick and easy rapid test can provide a diagnosis in minutes. Schedule an appointment today with a West Tennessee Medical Group pediatrician or primary care provider.