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Is My Child’s Sore Throat Actually Strep Throat?

October 28, 2021

Your son wakes up with a slightly sore throat. Later in the day, he complains that the sore throat is more painful. Could it be strep throat?

Quite possibly. While we enjoyed a relatively quiet fall and winter last year when it came to most normal childhood illnesses, like the flu, the common cold, and strep throat, those contagious illnesses are surging this year so far.

It makes sense. Last year, there were many precautions in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19, such as social distancing and mask requirements in many places, including schools. Those precautions helped limit the spread of the coronavirus in kids—and also had the added benefit of keeping them from getting sick due to other viruses and bacterial infections.

With fewer precautions in place this fall, illnesses are again spreading in our schools. Strep throat is one infection we’re seeing again in bigger numbers.

Dennis Moore, II, MD

How can you tell if your child’s sore throat is simply the result of a cold or is something more? Read on as Dennis Moore, II, MD, pediatrician with West Tennessee Medical Group, shares some insight about strep throat.

The Facts About Strep Throat
Trying to determine what illness your child has can be confusing at times. The common cold, the flu, COVID-19, and even seasonal allergies can all cause similar symptoms. 

A sore throat, for example, is often caused by some type of virus. But a severe sore throat may actually be a bacterial infection known as strep throat.

Strep throat occurs when bacteria called Streptococcus invade the throat and tonsils. This bacteria hangs out in the nose and throat, passing from person to person quite easily. That makes strep throat very contagious.

Someone who has strep can spread the bacteria to someone else by coughing or sneezing. Breathing in the airborne droplets containing the bacteria can cause you to get sick, as can touching something with droplets and then touching the mouth or nose. Drinking or eating after someone who is infected will also spread the bacteria.

How to Know If Strep Throat Is to Blame
Since a sore throat can be a sign of many different medical conditions, how would you know if strep throat were the cause?

The intensity of the sore throat is one key factor. Strep throat causes a very painful sore throat that typically begins quickly and can also worsen quickly.

If your child has strep throat, he or she may also experience pain when swallowing, a fever, a headache, stomach pain, and nausea or vomiting. Strep throat also causes red and swollen tonsils that may have white patches on them, along with little red spots on the roof of the mouth.

If a virus of some sort is to blame rather than strep throat, your child may have other symptoms alongside the sore throat, including a cough, runny nose, hoarseness and pink eye. If these symptoms are present, the sore throat is probably not due to strep throat.

There’s only one way to know for sure, though. If your child has a painful sore throat, see your medical provider. In many cases, rapid strep tests can be performed in the office, with results in minutes.

What to Do If Your Child Has Strep Throat
If your child has strep throat, your provider will prescribe an antibiotic to eradicate the strep bacteria. It’s important to take the medication for the full length it is prescribed, even if your child is feeling better. Not doing so increases the risk that some bacteria will remain behind, which can cause a recurrence of strep throat or a more serious condition such as rheumatic fever.

Because strep throat is so contagious, it’s important to keep your child away from others until he or she is no longer contagious. That’s at least 24 hours after the first dose of an antibiotic.

Your child will likely begin feeling better soon after beginning the antibiotic. A medical provider may recommend taking an over-the-counter pain reliever to help reduce a fever, if one is present, and reduce pain. Gargling with salt water and sucking on popsicles or hard candy can also help relieve discomfort.

Help keep your child on the path to healing by ensuring he or she gets plenty of rest and drinks lots of fluids.

Strep throat can be diagnosed using a quick and easy test. Need a pediatrician or family medicine specialist for your child? Find a provider