Strep Or a Sore Throat: Clarifying The Differences

When your child complains of a sore throat and general malaise, it is important to determine whether or not he or she is suffering from strep throat. A sore throat and strep throat are not the same. Differentiating between the two and confirming a diagnosis is essential in determining effective treatment and to prevent other potential health problems that can occur.

Causes of Sore Throats

With the start of each school year, parents dread the thought of their healthy and vivacious children interacting in an environment that is teeming with viruses and bacteria. Kids share their germs, and they are not always as diligent about washing their hands or covering their mouths when they cough as they should be. One illness that primarily afflicts children and teens is strep throat. While most sore throats that precede or accompany a cold are caused by viruses, strep throat is caused by Group A beta-hemolytic streptococcus bacteria. Strep throat is contagious and can also affect adults.

There are also a few potential causes of a sore throat that do not arise from classroom germ warfare, including:

  • Inhalant allergies
  • Airborne irritants, such as smoke or fumes
  • Fungal infections

Symptomatic Differences

If your child has a sore throat, you should schedule an appointment with your pediatric physician, but be sure to assess your child for other symptoms in order to provide the doctor with as much information as possible. Some additional symptoms of a viral cold infection include:

  • Coughing
  • Chest congestion
  • Nasal congestion
  • Runny nose

Alternately, if your child shows reluctance to eat or drink because swallowing is too painful, these additional symptoms may indicate the possibility of a strep infection:

  • High fever
  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Muscle aches
  • Redness on the roof of the mouth
  • Pus on the tonsils
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Swollen tonsils

The symptoms of a strep throat infection appear two to five days after contact with the bacteria.

Testing Before Treatment

Strep throat is treated with a course of antibiotic therapy for 10 days. Antibiotics offer no therapeutic advantages when administered for viral infections. Since viral infections account for 80 percent of sore throat symptoms in children, confirming a diagnosis of strep throat is essential in preventing future antibiotic resistance. Performing one of these two tests is the only way to make a definitive diagnosis of strep throat:

  • A rapid strep test, which is conducted in the physician's office and offers results within minutes
  • A throat culture swab, which is sent to a laboratory and offers results a few days later

Once the test mediums indicate the presence of strep bacteria, then it can be determined that antibiotic treatment will be effective. Your child will remain contagious until he or she has been taking the antibiotic drug for 24 to 48 hours, so expect to keep your child home for the first day or two of treatment.

Antibiotic Advantages

If your child has a viral infection that is causing his or her sore throat, your physician will likely recommend over-the-counter pain relief remedies and symptomatic treatment. If your child has been diagnosed with strep throat, then antibiotic treatment is warranted and offers these benefits:

  • The duration of your child's suffering is shortened.
  • The length of time during which your child is contagious to others is shortened.
  • A rare and potentially life-threatening complication called rheumatic fever is prevented.

Be sure to finish the entire prescribed course of antibiotics, even if your child's symptoms disappear sooner. Failure to do so can result in a relapse, leading to a longer stretch of antibiotic treatment and the potential for antibiotic resistance. Contact a pediatrician, like Lawrenceville Pediatrics, for more information.