How to know the difference between a sore throat and strep throatStrep throat is a common childhood illness, but parents often are frustrated with the number of times their kids get it. It’s important to understand a few important differences, especially the difference between a sore throat and strep throat.

Not all sore throats are strep throats. Most sore throats, which often come with a runny nose, cough and hoarseness, are caused by viruses and usually clear up on their own without medical treatment.

SEE ALSO: Learn more about Valerie Flanary, MD.

Signs of strep throat

A child with strep throat will start to develop other symptoms within about three days, including:

  • Red and white patches in the throat
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Red and enlarged tonsils
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Fever, headache and ear pain

Diagnosing strep throat

If your child has a sore throat and other strep throat symptoms, call your doctor. He or she will probably do a rapid strep test, using a cotton swab to take a sample of the fluids at the back of your child’s throat. If it’s positive, your child has strep throat. If it’s negative, the doctor will send a sample to a lab for a throat culture. The results are usually available within a few days.

Treating strep throat

Strep throat usually requires treatment with antibiotics. With medical care, along with plenty of rest and fluids, your child should be back to regular activities in a few days.

Remember that strep throat spreads. If you child does have it, it’s important to prevent him or her from spreading it:

  • Keep eating utensils, dishes and drinking glasses separate, and wash them in hot, soapy water after each use.
  • Your child shouldn’t share food, drinks, napkins or towels with family members.
  • Make sure your child covers his or her mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing.
  • Keep your child home from school or daycare until he or she has been on antibiotics for at least 24 hours.
  • Throw out your child’s toothbrush, and give him or her a new one. Do this once he or she has been taking antibiotics a few days and is no longer contagious.

Strep throat spreads like crazy

Strep throat is common in school-age kids. The bacteria that cause strep throat are found in the nose and throat, so sneezing or coughing easily spread the infection. That’s why it’s so important to teach kids about proper hand washing — but that’s a whole other blog topic!

How many cases of strep throat are too many?

I’m often asked how many cases of strep throat are too many, and when the tonsils are really the bigger problem. According to recent studies, this is too many:

  • Seven cases of strep throat in one year
  • Five cases every year for two years
  • Several each year for the past 3 to 4 years

You should also take into consideration additional problems like missing large amounts of school, being a chronic carrier of the bacteria that causes strep throat and the chances of developing an abscess, or severe infection in the soft tissue around the tonsils.

If this sounds a little too familiar, you may want to consider a referral to a specialist. It may be time to talk about the possibility of your child having tonsil surgery.

Valerie Flanary, MD– Valerie Flanary, MD, pediatric otolaryngologist, Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin

The Ear, Nose and Throat (ENT) Program, also known as the Otolaryngology Program, at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin provides specialized medical and surgical care to infants, children and teens who have problems with their ears, noses or throats. We have more than a dozen board certified specialists who provide comprehensive ENT care at multiple locations.

Learn more about Valerie Flanary, MD.


Is your child’s sore throat really strep throat? — 4 Comments

  1. This article simplifies something actually quite dangerous. If left untreated strep throat can turn into Rheumatic Fever. This isn’t just serious, it can be deadly. My father suffered 3 bouts of it, all caused by a strep infection in his throat. It damaged his heart and after the third bout of Rheumatic Fever, (the one that nearly killed him) he was told that if he got it again, it would kill him. I have a congenital heart defect and when my son got strep throat at school, he was sent to my parents place and Dad stayed with me until he was no longer contagious. Good article, but not thorough enough.

  2. Rheumatic fever is an extremely rare complication of untreated step throat. It is very preventable when strep throat is diagnosed and properly treated with antibiotics. Again, if you or your child has a sore throat see your doctor. – Dr. Flanary

  3. I used to suffer from strep throat for nearly 5 years. Every 2 – 3 months it used to reoccur and after culture the doctors used to prescribe specific antibiotics. The side effects of the antibiotics were worse but at least the pain used to go. Finally, I went to a homeopathic doctor who explained that the reason I got the streptococcus infection so frequently was because my body immunity levels were low. After, a one month treatment course I am happy that I have had few recurrences. He has given me strict instructions to avoid taking antibiotics for this condition in future.