Contributor: Michael Traylor, MD
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Sore throats are not only painful — they’re one of the most common reasons people visit their doctors and take sick days. Sometimes, you can take care of a sore throat at home, but it’s also important to know when you or your child needs to see a doctor.
Strep throat vs. sore throat: What’s the difference?
A variety of things can cause sore throats in both kids and adults. Things like viruses, bacteria, allergies or runny nose drainage can all cause pain in the throat.
A sore throat represents a symptom, which has some underlying cause. Your physician must identify the cause in order to prescribe the correct treatment, she says. For example, a sore throat, often accompanied by fever and possibly headache, stomach ache or rash, may indicate strep throat. The Group A Streptococcus bacteria causes strep, and it’s treated with antibiotics.
Viruses cause many sore throats in both adults and children. A runny nose, cough and hoarseness are more typical of viral infections. Antibiotics have no effect on viral infections. However, your doctor may suggest over-the-counter acetaminophen or ibuprofen and throat lozenges to manage the pain.
When should you see a doctor for sore throat?
Certainly if you suspect that you or your child has strep, it’s worth visiting your physician. The most common symptoms of strep throat include:
- Sudden onset of severely sore, red throat
- Painful swallowing
- Fever and chills
- Stomach ache
- Pus on tonsils; very red throat
- Red, sandpaper-like rash
Regardless of the combination of symptoms, if you or your child has any difficulty breathing or swallowing, you should call 911 to get medical attention immediately. In non-emergency cases, contact your primary care provider or child’s pediatrician.
Many healthcare providers will swab your throat and do a rapid strep test in the office. If that turns out negative, he or she will often conduct a second test — DNA or lab culture — to make sure.
If your test for strep turns out positive, your physician will prescribe an appropriate antibiotic.
The antibiotic can be prescribed in multiple forms, including liquid, capsules, or intramuscular injections.
Whether it’s you or your child with strep throat, it’s important to take all of the medicine, as prescribed; otherwise, the infection can return.
In some cases of strep throat, a rash develops on the chest and neck. This rash is typically rough like sandpaper and red. It’s a condition called scarlet fever. Just like strep throat, your doctor will prescribe antibiotics as treatment, which usually leads to a quick recovery.
Strep spreads through direct contact with mucus from the nose or throat of infected people. So it can spread through shared drinking glasses, toothbrushes, kissing or through the air by sneezing or coughing.
Returning to work and school
People with strep throat can spread the strep bacteria to others until they’ve taken the prescribed antibiotics for 24 hours. Don’t return to work, or allow your child to return to school, until after the 24-hour period has passed. To lessen the chances of an infection spreading to others, she also recommends replacing toothbrushes and thoroughly washing any cups, dishes or silverware people used when they were sick.
Depending on the severity of infection, you or your child may need another day or two, in addition to the initial 24 hours, to recover. Taking this extra time to regain strength never hurts.