Sore Throat vs Strep Throat: How to tell the difference

Learn about the symptoms and differences from sore throats and strep throat as well home remedies to help soothe the pain.

Waking up with an itchy and irritated throat can be a common occurrence, often attributed to a harmless sore throat. However, this seemingly innocent symptom could be the early sign of something more serious—strep throat. Distinguishing between a regular sore throat and strep throat is essential in guiding you towards the right course of action for your health. In this article, we will explore the key differences between these two conditions and provide guidance on when to seek appropriate care.

Understanding Sore Throat

A sore throat, known scientifically as pharyngitis, can have various causes, including viral infections, allergens like pollen and dust, food intolerances, or even bacterial infections. Viral infections, such as the flu, are among the most common culprits of sore throats. Pharyngitis caused by viruses or allergies often presents with common symptoms, which may include:

  • A swollen, scratchy, or itchy throat and tonsils
  • Congestion
  • Cough
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Earache
  • Itchy eyes (if allergies are the trigger)
  • Swollen glands resulting in a lump on the neck
  • Moderate fever
  • Moderate rash
  • Runny nose

Identifying Strep Throat Symptoms

Strep throat, while similarly painful to viral or allergic sore throats, is caused by the group A streptococcus bacteria, commonly referred to as Group A Strep. The symptoms of bacterial pharyngitis, in the case of strep throat, are somewhat distinct and may include:

  • A sore throat without cough or cold symptoms, such as a runny nose or congestion
  • Difficulty swallowing or breathing
  • Ear infection
  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Red and swollen tonsils, often accompanied by white patches or streaks
  • Swollen lymph nodes just below the earlobes
  • Tiny red spots on the back of the roof of the mouth

When to Seek Medical Attention

Strep throat, if left untreated, can lead to severe complications, including Scarlet Fever and Rheumatic Fever. Therefore, it is imperative to consult a healthcare professional, such as an urgent care clinic, if you exhibit strep throat symptoms.

Differentiating Sore Throat from Strep Throat

The primary distinction between sore throat and strep throat lies in the causative agent. Strep throat is triggered by group A streptococcus bacteria, while other sore throats can be attributed to various bacteria, viruses, or irritants like allergies. The different types of pharyngitis necessitate distinct treatment plans and medications.

Red Sore Throat

A hallmark symptom of bacterial pharyngitis, such as strep throat, is a vivid redness of the throat. The tonsils may appear swollen and inflamed, with a deeper hue compared to the surrounding tissue. This redness can also resemble streaks, or patients might observe small bright red spots on the throat and the roof of the mouth.

White Spots on Throat

Another distinguishing feature of bacterial throat infections is the presence of distinct white spots, splotches, or streaks on the tonsils, alongside the red sore throat. If you notice these signs, it is advisable to seek medical attention for a strep test, as accurate diagnosis is crucial for appropriate treatment.

Home Remedies for Sore Throat

Following a pharyngitis diagnosis, healthcare providers may recommend various at-home remedies along with any necessary medications, including:

  • Gargling with warm saltwater (a ratio of 1 to 5 of salt to water) to reduce swelling and alleviate discomfort.
  • Medicated throat lozenges.
  • Throat sprays containing phenol.
  • Consumption of warm liquids, such as honey and lemon tea or broth soup.
  • Utilizing a humidifier for warm or cool mist.
  • Some patients may opt for over-the-counter pain relievers for associated aches and pains. Consult your healthcare provider for medication suitability.

Diagnosis and Treatment of Strep Throat

Healthcare providers can perform a rapid strep test to detect antigens associated with Streptococcus A bacteria. If the test results are negative, it’s essential to remain vigilant, as approximately 15% of individuals with strep throat may receive a false negative result. In such cases, a throat culture can provide a more accurate diagnosis, although it may take 1 to 2 days for results to become available.

If the test is positive, antibiotics will be prescribed to treat the strep infection, with the patient typically experiencing relief within a few days. It is crucial to complete the full course of antibiotics as instructed to prevent antibiotic resistance.

Patients may also inquire about over-the-counter pain relievers, such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen, to alleviate throat pain and fever symptoms.

Strep Throat Symptoms in Children

Strep throat symptoms in children are generally similar to those in adults, but young children may struggle to communicate their discomfort. Parents should be vigilant for signs such as difficulty swallowing or refusal of favorite foods, unexplained fever, or unusual drooling. If strep symptoms are observed, it’s advisable to seek prompt medical attention.

Treatment for Strep Throat

Strep throat is a condition that healthcare providers take seriously. Upon a positive strep test, they typically prescribe oral antibiotics to initiate prompt treatment. Penicillin or amoxicillin are the most commonly prescribed antibiotics for curing strep, though alternative antibiotics may be considered if a patient is allergic to these options.

It’s important to note that viral pharyngitis cannot be treated with antibiotics, as antibiotics are ineffective against viruses. Depending on the specific virus causing the problem, a healthcare provider may offer antiviral medications.

Visiting Urgent Care

If you are experiencing symptoms of strep throat or other sore throat issues, you should visit one of our urgent care clinics. Urgent care is convenient and typically involves short wait times, often under 15 minutes for walk-in patients. For those who prefer appointments, you can easily book online here.

We also offer online virtual visits for patients who wish to consult with healthcare professionals from the comfort of their homes. Virtual visits require only a Wi-Fi connection and can be conducted using a laptop, tablet, or cell phone.

In conclusion, it is essential to distinguish between a regular sore throat and strep throat, as accurate diagnosis guides appropriate treatment. Whether you experience mild symptoms or suspect a more severe condition, seeking timely medical attention is the key to a speedy recovery and the prevention of potential complications.


The NeuMed blog is published by NeuMed Modern Urgent Care + IV Therapy, an innovative urgent care and IV infusion therapy clinic with locations in Houston, Texas.

Any general advice posted on our blog, or website is for informational purposes only and is not intended to replace or substitute for any medical or other advice. If you have specific concerns or a situation arises in which you require medical advice, you should consult with an appropriately trained and qualified medical services provider.