Strep throat is a bacterial infection caused by streptococcus bacteria and is characterized by pus on the tonsils. Strep throat is highly contagious, unless the patient has been on antibiotics for 24 to 48 hours. One of the symptoms of strep is a sore throat, but only about 1 in 10 adults who seek medical care for a sore throat actually have a strep infection. Other viral or bacterial infections or even prolonged vocal strain can also result in your throat being sore. The medical term for a sore throat is pharyngitis and its most common cause is a viral infection.

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Sore Throat versus Strep Throat comparison chart
Edit this comparison chartSore ThroatStrep Throat
Introduction A sore throat is simply pain or irritation of the throat as a result of varying causes. Strep throat or is a type of pharyngitis caused by a group A streptococcal infection, adn infection caused by a type of Streptococcus bacteria.
Also known as Throat pain, irritable throat. Streptococcal pharyngitis, streptococcal tonsillitis, or streptococcal sore throat.
Causes Viral, bacterial, physical injury. Acute pharyngitis (inflammation of the throat), cold, flu, sometimes even as a result of trauma or diphtheria. Group A beta-hemolytic streptococcus bacteria.
Symptoms Red, swollen throat, pain in swallowing, inflamed tonsils, fever. High fever, chills, vomiting, headache, muscle ache, pus on tonsils, abnormal taste.
Contagious Possibly, depends on cause. Always very contagious.
Cough Often No
Aches Yes, in throat Headache, throat, muscles
Fatigue Possibly, dependent on cause Yes
Fever Not necessarily High fever
Runny nose Possibly, dependent on cause No
Sneezing Possibly, dependent on cause No
Stuffy nose Possibly, dependent on cause No
Treatment Over-the-counter pain medicine, throat lozenges, saltwater gargle, antibiotic (if appropriate). Prescription antibiotics, usually penicillin or amoxicillin.
Complications None, dependant on cause. Infection may spread, abscess, rheumatic fever.


Sore throat can be accompanied by allergies or the common cold or flu. The duration of the pain and accompanying symptoms depend on the cause. If a sore throat is caused by a cold, it usually lasts two days. The throat is red and swollen. Patients feel pain when swallowing, and tonsils may be inflamed. Sore throat is often accompanied by fever, fatigue, a runny or stuffy nose or sneezing, depending on the cause.

Sore throat (left) and strep throat (right).
Sore throat (left) and strep throat (right).

Strep throat lasts three to seven days. Symptoms of strep throat include a high fever, chills, vomiting, headache, muscle aches, pus on the tonsils, fatigue and an abnormal taste in the mouth. Strep throat is very contagious, at least until the patient has been on antibiotics 24 to 48 hours.

It is usually hard to tell whether a sore throat is caused by a viral or bacterial infection. If it's a viral infection, likely symptoms are a runny nose, stuffed-up chest, red or itchy eyes, cough, and pain in the roof of the mouth. When the cause of a sore throat is a strep infection, patients don't normally have these symptoms; instead they experience severe throat pain, swollen glands in the neck, and a fever.

This video discusses the implications of strep throat and sore throat:

Transmission and Diagnosis

Pharyngitis, or sore throat, is often due to a virus, but can also be caused by the strep bacteria. Both viral and strep infection can cause throat pain that is worse when swallowing, aching all over with headache and fever. Both types of infections are contagious. They may be spread by coughing, kissing or touching others after touching your mouth or nose.

Strep throat is diagnosed by using a throat culture, which involves swabbing the tonsils. A rapid test is usually accurate but sometimes the throat culture may need to be incubated for 2-3 days before strep can be conclusively diagnosed.


Treatment for sore throat depends on the cause. If the cause is bacterial, it is treated with antibiotics. Otherwise, patients use over-the-counter pain medication like Advil or Tylenol, throat lozenges and sprays (e.g. Chloraseptic) to alleviate the discomfort. Gargling with warm salt water also reduces throat pain and is especially useful just before meals. Dissolve 1/2 teaspoon of salt in 1 glass of warm water. Aspirin should never be used for any patient under the age of 18 who is ill with a fever, because aspirin may cause severe liver damage.

Strep throat is treated with antibiotics antibiotics. The most common prescription is penicillin; cephalosporins, like Cephalexin, or erythromycin-based medicines are also common. Not treating strep with antibiotics may lead to skin rashes and reinfection (e.g., from a toothbrush). Antibiotics can also help by reducing the symptoms of strep throat and prevent its contagion. As with any antibiotics, it is very important to complete the full course of treatment (usually 7-10 days). Do not stop taking the antibiotics just because you're feeling better in a couple of days.

Over-the-counter pain medication, sucking on cough drops or candy, and gargling with salt water can all help to alleviate symptoms of a sore throat, regardless of whether it's caused by a viral or bacterial infection.


The best way to prevent infection is washing hands with soap and water, and washing them often. You may also use an alcohol rub as long as it is applied on all parts of both hands.

Since strep throat is always contagious until the patient is on antibiotics for 24-48 hours, patients should stay away from work and public places until they're on antibiotics for at least a day.

Change toothbrush once you are no longer contagious, but before the antibiotics dose runs out, else the bacteria may thrive in the toothbrush and the infection will resurface. Keep the family's toothbrushes and utensils separate from that of the patient, unless they have been washed.

If strep still repeatedly occurs in the family, check to see if someone is a strep carrier. Carriers have strep in their throats, but the bacteria do not make them sick. Treating carriers may prevent the rest from getting strep throat.


Sore throat usually does not give rise to complications, although it may sometimes depend on the cause.

When strep throat is left untreated, some complications may arise. The strep infection can spread to other parts of the body, causing infections of the ear or sinus, among others. Abscesses may develop near the tonsils. A patient's immune system may even attack itself, resulting in rheumatic fever.


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