Cedars-Sinai Blog

How Can I Tell If a Sore Throat Is Strep Throat?

Strep throat can be an especially common illness in school-aged children and teenagers.

You start feeling pain or tingling in your throat, and it hurts to swallow. Is it just a sore throat or is it strep throat? Do you just need to rest or do you need to see your doctor?

Is it serious?

A sore throat can have a variety of causes—including viral infections (like a cold), pollution, allergies, and heartburn. Strep throat, however, is a severe kind of sore throat caused by bacteria called group A Streptococcus or group A strep.

Symptoms of strep throat include:

  • A fever of 101 degrees or more that lasts more than 2 days
  • Swollen tonsils with red or white patches
  • Rash
  • Swollen lymph nodes

If you're experiencing these symptoms in addition to a sore throat, your doctor will need to do a rapid strep test or a throat culture to determine if group A strep is present.

"While antibiotics are very effective at treating strep throat, they do not help sore throats due to other causes."

"You should call your doctor if you develop a sore throat with a fever higher than 101 or a rash without other cold symptoms, such as runny nose and cough," says Cedars-Sinai primary care physician Dr. Colleen Ryan.

Treating strep throat

Strep throat usually lasts only 3-5 days, but antibiotics are important to prevent complications like scarlet fever and rheumatic fever. Most people feel better 1-2 days after starting antibiotics.

"While antibiotics are very effective at treating strep throat, they do not help sore throats due to other causes," says Dr. Ryan. "The majority of sore throats are due to viral infections and will not be helped by antibiotics."

Soothing your symptoms

Looking for ways to soothe your sore throat? Dr. Ryan recommends the following for treating the symptoms, whether caused by strep throat or not:

  • Stay hydrated by drinking plenty of fluids to keep the throat moist.
  • Use a humidifier.
  • Gargle with saltwater to help clear post-nasal drip, which can irritate the throat.
  • Use throat lozenges and warm liquids such as tea with honey to soothe your throat.
  • Use acetaminophen or ibuprofen to treat pain or very high fevers. Check with your doctor or pharmacist to make sure these over-the-counter pain medications are safe for you.
Prevent the spread of germs

Strep throat is highly contagious and can be spread through airborne droplets. Other causes of sore throat can also be contagious, so with any sore throat, you should take care to protect those around you.

"You should wash your hands frequently when you have a sore throat and avoid touching your mouth," says Dr. Ryan. "If you have a cough, wear a mask or cough into your elbow crease to avoid spreading germs. Do not share food, drinks, and utensils. Also, avoid sharing towels and bed linens. Wash everything in hot, soapy water."

Wondering how long you should you stay home from work or keep the kids home from school? With strep throat, you are no longer contagious once you have been on antibiotics for 24 hours. With viral infections like colds, you are contagious as long as the symptoms last.