Strep throat is a painful bacterial infection that affects the throat and tonsils. It is more common in children, but can affect anyone, at any age. It is caused by a bacteria known as Group A Streptococcus. 

Symptoms of strep throat

Symptoms of strep throat may include:

  • Throat pain that is sudden and severe.
  • Pain and discomfort while swallowing.
  • Tonsils that are red and swollen, sometimes with white spots or streaks.
  • A fever, typically above 101°F.
  • Headache or body aches.
  • Some individuals with strep throat may develop a specific rash called scarlet fever. 

The difference between a sore throat and strep

Both a sore throat and strep throat are painful. But they also differ in several ways. 

  • A sore throat is most often caused by a virus while bacteria cause strep throat. COVID-19 can also cause a sore throat.
  • A sore throat often occurs with a cold. If you have a cough and a runny nose, the pain in your throat is more likely a sore throat rather than strep. Learn more about other symptoms in this post
  • A sore throat caused by a cold may cause a mild fever. But throat pain accompanied by a fever above 101 is often a sign of strep.
  • A sore throat can be painful, but usually lasts only a couple days as symptoms lessen. Strep causes severe pain that lingers and may be so painful you can barely swallow.

What to do if you think you have strep throat

If you suspect you have strep throat, see a healthcare professional for a proper diagnosis. Your primary care doctor or an urgent care center can perform a rapid strep test. All it takes is a quick swab of your throat. Sometimes a swab can be sent to a lab for confirmation.

Viral infections such as COVID-19, the flu, and the common cold also cause symptoms like those of strep throat, but these do not respond to antibiotics. That’s why professional medical advice, an accurate and timely diagnosis, and appropriate treatment are essential. 

An accurate diagnosis is also crucial because:

  • Taking antibiotics for strep will help you recover faster and be less contagious. You can then return to school, work, or social activities sooner. 
  • Strep throat may improve on its own. However, if left untreated, it can lead to additional complications such as rheumatic fever or kidney inflammation. 
  • A precise diagnosis can also avoid unnecessary antibiotics, which can affect your health. The overuse of antibiotics is a concern in the development of so-called Superbugs.

How to manage strep throat

If you have strep throat, your doctor will give you a prescription for antibiotics. It's important to take all the antibiotics, even if your symptoms improve before the medication is finished. This helps ensure the bacteria are destroyed. It also reduces the risk of complications.

While the antibiotics will take care of the infection, there are also ways to help manage your symptoms, so you feel better. 

  • Stay hydrated. Drink plenty of water or warm liquids that can soothe the throat. 
  • Choose soft foods such as gelatin, milkshakes, or hot soup and avoid crunchy or spicy items. 
  • Gargle with warm salt water.
  • Suck on ice chips.
  • Take over-the-counter pain medicine like acetaminophen or ibuprofen to relieve pain and reduce fever.
  • Get plenty of rest to help your body fight the infection. 
  • Take your antibiotics and be sure to finish the prescription.  

If you have symptoms of strep, call your doctor or visit a Lifespan Urgent Care Center near you. 

Olivier Gherardi, DO

Olivier Gherardi, DO

Dr. Olivier M. Gherardi is the medical director of Lifespan Urgent Care, which is part of Lifespan Physician Group, the largest multispecialty practice in Rhode Island.