Strep Throat vs. Sore Throat: Telling the Difference

When you wake up with a sore throat, it can be challenging to figure out the cause. It could be strep throat, another infection, allergies, or even acid reflux.

Strep throat is a bacterial infection that causes swelling in the tonsils and usually peaks around age 7 or 8. Symptoms include a painful sore throat, fever, swollen neck glands, and white patches on the tonsils. 

A respiratory illness or environmental irritant could cause a sore throat. If your sore throat is due to strep throat you may require antibiotics to cure the infection and prevent complications. 

This article provides an overview of the common causes of a sore throat and explains how to determine if you have strep throat. 

Collecting a throat culture.
VOISIN / Getty Images

Possible Reasons for a Sore Throat

There are several possible reasons for a sore throat. In infants, toddlers, and young children, a viral infection is the most common cause of sore throat. Both viral and bacterial causes of a sore throat are contagious and are spread through respiratory droplets in the air. 

Strep Throat

Strep throat is a bacterial infection caused by group A Streptococcus. This infection causes tonsillitis (swelling of the tonsils). It leads to a very sore throat and painful swallowing. It also causes a fever over 102 degrees Fahrenheit, swollen glands in the neck, pus on the tonsils, and fatigue.

Cold, Flu, and Other Viral Infections

Respiratory illnesses like a cold or the flu (influenza) often cause a sore throat. The earliest signs of a cold virus are usually a sore throat and runny nose. Other symptoms may include coughing, sneezing, headache, and body aches. The flu virus causes a sore throat, fever, cough, runny nose, headache, body aches, and fatigue. 


Allergies occur when the body’s immune system overreacts to a trigger in the environment. Possible triggers may include outside allergens like pollen, grass, and trees. Indoor allergens may consist of dust and pet dander. Cigarette smoke and other irritants can also cause a sore throat. Symptoms of allergies may include a sore throat, runny nose, itchy eyes, stuffy nose, and fatigue.

Dry Air

Being exposed to dry air is irritating and may cause a sore throat. A study found that when 45 volunteers were exposed to a steady stream of cold, dry air into their throats, they experienced pain and irritation. The colder and dryer the air, the more pain and irritation participants reported.


Smoke irritates the sinus tissues and can lead to a sore throat. Chronic exposure to smoke may also cause a dry cough and difficulty breathing. 

Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease

Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) occurs when the contents of the stomach flow back up the esophagus, causing a burning sensation in the chest. Laryngopharyngeal reflux (LPR) occurs when stomach contents flow up the larynx and pharynx, irritating the airway and causing a sore throat.

Strep Throat Symptoms

Common symptoms of strep throat include:

  • Sore throat
  • Fever
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Pain and difficulty swallowing
  • Red, swollen tonsils 
  • White patches on the tonsils
  • Bad breath 
  • Mouth breathing, snoring 
  • Dehydration 
  • Fatigue 

Strep Throat Complications

Strep throat can lead to serious complications when left untreated. See your healthcare provider if you notice any of the following symptoms:

  • Sore throat for longer than two days
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Excessive drooling 


Strep throat can be diagnosed with the following two tests:

  • Rapid strep test: This test is performed in the healthcare provider’s office, and results are usually ready within 15 minutes. There is a risk of false negatives with this test. If the test comes back negative, your provider may recommend a throat culture. 
  • Throat culture: Your healthcare provider will swab the back of the throat and tonsils for a throat culture. The specimen will then be sent to a lab, and results are usually back within 24 hours.

Telling the Difference Between Strep Throat and a Sore Throat

Strep Throat
  • Very painful sore throat

  • High fever

  • Peaks in school-age children

  • Other symptoms include swollen neck glands, pus on the tonsils, and fatigue

Viral Illness
  • Sore throat

  • Mild fever

  • Peaks in infants, toddlers, and preschoolers

  • Other symptoms include cough, runny nose, and hoarseness

Treating Strep Throat

Strep throat is a bacterial infection that requires treatment from a healthcare provider. In addition to antibiotic therapy, home remedies may provide some pain relief. 

Home remedies that may provide comfort include:

  • Rest
  • Drink plenty of fluids
  • Try over-the-counter (OTC) pain medicine such as Tylenol (acetaminophen)
  • Eat soft foods
  • Enjoy cold food such as Popsicles 
  • Gargle with a saltwater solution

Strep throat is usually treated with antibiotics to shorten the duration and prevent complications. A possible complication of bacterial tonsillitis is rheumatic fever. Antibiotics for treating bacterial tonsillitis include penicillins, cephalosporins, macrolides, and clindamycin.

Treating a Sore Throat

A sore throat caused by a virus or environmental irritant usually resolves on its own. Home remedies to try include:

  • Using a humidifier 
  • Staying hydrated
  • Resting often 
  • Gargling with saltwater
  • Using OTC medications like Tylenol (acetaminophen)


Strep throat is a bacterial infection. It causes swelling in the tonsils. Symptoms may include a painful sore throat, fever, swollen glands, and white patches of pus on the tonsils. A sore throat may be caused by a viral infection or environmental irritant, which may also cause swelling of the tonsils. Strep throat can be diagnosed with a rapid strep test or throat culture. Strep throat is usually treated with antibiotics to shorten the duration and prevent complications. 

A Word From Verywell

When you have a sore throat, it’s hard to know what to do next. You may wonder if you should take a COVID-19 test, ask your healthcare provider for a rapid strep test, or wait it out. Talk with your healthcare provider if you’ve had a sore throat for a few days. Pay attention to any other symptoms you’re experiencing, and rest as much as possible.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is strep throat worse than sore throat?

    Strep throat is a bacterial infection that often requires treatment with antibiotics. A sore throat from strep throat is often more painful than a sore throat from viruses like a cold or the flu.

  • How is strep throat diagnosed?

    Strep throat can be diagnosed with a rapid strep test or throat culture. 

  • Can you have strep without fever?

    A fever is a common sign of strep throat. If you do not have a fever, your sore throat is likely caused by another infection or irritant. 

10 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Academy of Pediatrics. Strep throat, sore throat or tonsillitis: What’s the difference?

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Common colds: Protect yourself and others.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Flu symptoms & diagnosis.

  4. American College of Allergy, Asthma, & Immunology. Hay fever (rhinitis).

  5. Renner B, Ahne G, Grosan E, Kettenmann B, Kobal G, Shephard A. Tonic stimulation of the pharyngeal mucosa causes pain and a reversible increase of inflammatory mediators. Inflamm Res. 2013;62(12):1045-1051. doi:10.1007/s00011-013-0663-7

  6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Wildfire smoke and COVID-19.

  7. Campagnolo AM, Priston J, Thoen RH, Medeiros T, Assunção AR. Laryngopharyngeal reflux: diagnosis, treatment, and latest research. Int Arch Otorhinolaryngol. 2014;18(2):184-191. doi:10.1055/s-0033-1352504

  8. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Pharyngitis (strep throat).

  9. MedlinePlus. Tonsillitis.

  10. Johns Hopkins Medicine. The do’s and don’ts of easing cold symptoms.

By Carrie Madormo, RN, MPH
Carrie Madormo, RN, MPH, is a health writer with over a decade of experience working as a registered nurse. She has practiced in a variety of settings including pediatrics, oncology, chronic pain, and public health.