During cold and flu season, it’s easy to mistake a sore throat as part of a cold, sinus infection or even seasonal allergies. However, sore throats caused by allergies and viruses are very different than strep throat. Amra Nasir, MD, medical director for Adventist HealthCare Urgent Care, helps explain key differences between seasonal respiratory conditions and strep throat.

What is Strep Throat?

Strep throat is an infection caused by group A strep bacteria. “When this bacterium enters your nose and throat, it leads to painful inflammation on your throat and tonsils,” says Dr. Nasir. “Like respiratory viruses, strep throat is spread to others when you cough, sneeze or come into close contact with infected droplets.”

Is My Sore Throat Strep Throat?

Here are some tips that can signal that you or your child’s sore throat may be a case of strep throat:

  • You have pain and a fever without a cough. “Strep throat is more likely to cause flu-like symptoms, such as aching, fevers and nausea. Respiratory viruses or allergies are more likely to cause coughs, hoarseness and sinus irritation,” Dr. Nasir says.
  • You spend a lot of time around children. Infectious illnesses, such as strep throat, tend to spread whenever large groups of people come into close contact with each other. “Strep throat is most common in children who spend time around other children in schools or daycare centers,” says Dr. Nasir. “Also, adults who spend a lot of time with children or who are frequently in close-quartered environments are at higher risk.
  • Your tonsils look infected.
    Infected tonsils are a hallmark symptom of strep throat. Many people with strep notice white patches on their tonsils along with redness and soreness.
  • You have a rash. It’s common for people with strep throat to develop a rash known as scarlet fever. Dr. Nasir says the rash usually occurs within one or two days of feeling sick. “The rash may start as small, flat blotches on your neck, underarm or groin that turn into coarse bumps. When the rash heals, you may also experience peeling for up to a few weeks,” Dr. Nasir says.
  • It’s winter or early spring. “Though strep throat can occur at any time, I generally notice that we get the most cases of strep during the winter months leading into early spring,” Dr. Nasir says.

Treatment

If you suspect that you have strep throat, see an urgent care, pediatrician or primary care physician as soon as possible. Dr. Nasir says untreated strep infections can lead to serious inflammatory infections in your joints, heart, skin or kidneys. “Your doctor can give you a rapid strep test which will give you quick results on whether you have strep,” Dr. Nasir says.

Dr. Nasir also recommends antibiotics to cure strep throat and scarlet fever. “In most cases, antibiotics can completely cure the infection in about ten days. In the meantime, you can relieve your sore throat by using effective home remedies, such as gargling with salt water, drinking a warm beverage or adding honey to your tea. Stay home from work or school until you or your child have been on antibiotics for at least two days and the fever is gone,” Dr. Nasir says. “The best way to prevent getting strep is by washing your hands often, especially before eating or preparing foods and after coughing or sneezing.”

Sources: Centers for Disease Control, Mayo Clinic

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