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Sore throats are painful nuisances that are usually not serious issues. After a few days of pain and discomfort, the condition resolves, and we move on. However, the signs and symptoms of a sore throat can be signs of a more serious infection: strep throat. Unlike a sore throat, strep throat is contagious and may lead to severe complications. Unfortunately, it is difficult to distinguish between strep throat and sore throat without a medical test.

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Cause of Sore Throat

Usually, sore throat is the result of a viral infection that causes inflammation in the area of the throat just behind the tonsils -- the pharynx. Because it is a viral infection, a sore throat may be the first symptom of minor issues such as influenza, or it may be a sign of an oncoming severe illness. The viruses that most commonly cause sore throat are influenza and rhinovirus. A sore throat usually progresses into illnesses such as strep throat when a bacterial infection is responsible.

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Cause of Strep Throat

The primary bacteria that causes strep throat is Streptococcus pyogenes or group A streptococcus. Streptococcal bacteria are very contagious and can travel using many different methods. Most people come into contact with the bacteria through airborne material that an infected person expelled while coughing or sneezing. It is also possible to pick up the bacteria from doorknobs or other infected surfaces. The bacteria enter the system after the bacteria-contaminated hand touches the eyes, nose, or mouth.

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Risk Factors for Strep

One of the easiest ways to determine if an illness is strep throat or sore throat is to recognize the risk factors for strep throat. Because strep throat is highly contagious, spending even a short amount of time around somebody with strep throat is a major risk factor. School-aged children are significantly more likely to develop strep throat than most adults. In addition, spending time in areas with large groups of people is an easy way for infectious illnesses to spread. Schools and daycare centers are usually full of bacteria and offer many methods of bacterial transfer.

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Throat Pain

Both strep throat and sore throat cause throat pain and discomfort. However, strep throat has a few symptoms that distinguish it from a regular sore throat. Notably, most people with sore throats will cough frequently and experience further pain. However, strep throat will cause throat pain and doesn’t always feature a cough. Additionally, congestion often appears with sore throats but is not present in strep throat infections.

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Swollen Glands

The lymph nodes are important parts of the body’s auto-immune response. Though there are many throughout the body, they are easiest to feel through the throat. When a person has strep throat, their lymph nodes typically swell quite noticeably. An individual can feel swollen nodes by placing their hands on the front of their neck and lightly pressing on the area. If it feels lumpy or painful to the touch, it’s likely that strep throat is present and affecting the lymph nodes. A sore throat usually doesn’t cause any inflammation of the lymph nodes.

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Pain and Fever

One of the more distinguishing symptoms of strep throat is a fever. Unless the sore throat is a symptom of a serious illness other than strep throat, fevers don’t usually accompany sore throats. Strep throat fevers can reach over 101 degrees Fahrenheit and may cause headaches and fatigue. Muscle soreness in the arms, chest, and back is also fairly common. In rare instances, an extreme rash may appear around the time the fever begins. This rash is scarlet fever.

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Tonsils

Another key difference between sore throat and strep throat involves the tonsils. Near the back of the throat are a pair of soft masses that consist of a tissue similar to that of the lymph nodes. When a person has strep throat, it often affects the tonsils. By opening their mouth and looking in the mirror, a person can usually see their tonsils. If they seem larger than normal or have an odd white material covering them, this suggests strep throat. In some cases, the tonsils won’t have white patches but will be a brighter red color.

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Soft Palate

The back area of the roof of the mouth is a soft tissue that constitutes the soft palate. Usually, this area is the same color as the mouth and is rarely noticeable. However, strep throat can cause the soft palate to develop small red spots. These red spots are petechiae and may resemble a rash or similar skin condition. In some cases, they may have a purple or brown coloration rather than red. They may cause the mouth to bleed easily and be slightly painful.

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Two Day Rule

Any of the previous symptoms could be a sign of strep throat. However, because many of the symptoms are fairly general in nature, it is still possible that they are unrelated to strep throat. The final way to know whether or not the symptoms are strep throat is to wait. If any of the symptoms last for two days, it is likely that there is a serious infection and that medical intervention is necessary. In addition, if there is any concern that a person may have strep throat, it is generally better to visit a physician. Strep throat can have some dangerous complications that are significantly more difficult for physicians to treat.

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Culture Test

Healthcare professionals can determine whether or not a person has strep throat fairly easily with a "rapid strep test." The doctor uses a small swab to take a sample from the back of the throat. The test results are available in under an hour and can determine if a person has strep throat. However, if a person has throat pain with no cough, swollen lymph nodes, fever, and white material on the tonsils concurrently, doctors will often assume strep throat and prescribe antibiotics.

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Disclaimer

This site offers information designed for educational purposes only. You should not rely on any information on this site as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, treatment, or as a substitute for, professional counseling care, advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you have any concerns or questions about your health, you should always consult with a physician or other healthcare professional.