Just like strep throat, sore throat is just as annoying and painful. Sore throat refers to the pain, itchiness, or irritation of the throat, leading to difficulty in swallowing food and liquid.1 While these illnesses seem identical, there are some key differences you should watch out for.
A sore throat’s primary symptoms include a painful (as the name implies) and dry throat, swollen glands in the neck, white patches on the tonsils and hoarseness.
Meanwhile, strep throat may also manifest through these symptoms, but will also come with other indicators, such as loss of appetite, headaches, rashes and fever, to name a few.
Both sore and strep throat affect people of all ages, but the risk of being diagnosed is higher for children and people who share close spaces with others.
However, there are other risk factors connected to sore throat such as smoking, exposure to someone with sore or strep throat, having a weak immune system, irregularly-shaped or large tonsils and acid reflux2.
Distinguishing Between Strep Throat and Sore Throat
While a strep throat is mainly caused by a bacterial infection, there are many causes that can lead to a sore throat such as viruses, environmental factors and other diseases. You can also get sore throat if you strain your muscles too much when talking or yelling.
One of the main differences between strep and sore throat can be summed up in this statement: “Everyone who has a strep throat has a sore throat, but not everyone with a sore throat has a strep infection.”3
In addition, a bacterial infection can cause both strep throat and sore throat, but a viral infection can only lead to a sore throat and not strep throat. Bacterial infections that can cause sore throat include diphtheria, whooping cough, and strep throat, while viral infections include:4
- Cold or flu virus
- Mononucleosis: an infectious disease usually transmitted via the saliva
- Measles: a contagious sickness characterized by rashes and fever
- Chickenpox: an infection that comes with itchy blistering sores
- Croup: an infection of the larynx
Sore throat can be contagious, depending on the agent that causes it, and can be passed from one person to another. It can spread in the same manner as the common cold: through sneezing, coughing, or sharing utensils or drinking glasses.5
Other Factors That May Lead to a Sore Throat
Environmental factors can also cause sore throat. These include the presence of allergens and other irritants, dry air,6 smoking cigarettes or exposure to cigarette smoke, and even cold weather.7 Unfortunately, a sore throat can also be a sign of any of these diseases:
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD): A digestive condition that happens when stomach acid flows back into the esophagus, resulting in different symptoms like sore throat, hoarseness, heartburn, and nausea
- HIV infection: If someone is infected with HIV, a sore throat and other flu-like symptoms can appear early. A recurring sore throat can also be an indicator of a secondary infection.8
- Cancerous tumors in the throat, tongue or larynx
There are also “rare” causes for sore throat. One is an abscess, or an infected area of tissue. Another is epiglottitis, a potentially life-threatening condition wherein the small cartilage “lid” covering the windpipe swells up and blocks the airflow.9
Have Yourself Checked If You Spot These Symptoms
How long your sore throat lasts depends on what caused it, but if treated immediately, you can feel better in a week or even in a few days. However, if you notice these symptoms still appearing after a week, you need to consult a physician or a health professional:
- Difficulty breathing and swallowing
- Joint pain
- An earache
- A fever over 101 degrees Fahrenheit
- Blood mucus
- Throat lumps
- Hoarseness that lasts for more than two weeks
If the doctor is unable to diagnose the sore throat, he or she can refer you to an allergist or an ear, nose and throat specialist. A painful throat can be diagnosed as strep throat if the doctor finds the other hallmark symptoms of this illness. However, if the physician or health expert sees none of the symptoms of sore throat, it can be an indicator for another disease, hence the recommendation to other specialists.
In order to reach a diagnosis, the physician or health expert does a physical exam, inspects the throat with a lighted instrument to look for signs of inflammation or white patches, feels the neck for swollen glands, performs a swab test on the throat to check for strep throat (a common cause of sore throat) or completes a blood test to see if it’s a viral or bacterial infection.