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Is It A Viral Sore Throat Or Strep Throat?

It only takes the winter season to usher in an array of illnesses in the pediatrician's office. As you know, we are smack in the middle of flu season, with...
It only takes the winter season to usher in an array of illnesses in the pediatrician's office. As you know, we are smack in the middle of flu season, with cases and deaths being reported daily.  To review (again), flu like symptoms for all influenza strains are typically similar with fever, sore throat, cough, congestion, headaches and body aches. Occasionally there may be some nausea or vomiting but that is not seen as often. Flu like symptoms seem to begin with general malaise and then develop over the next 12–24 hours and you just feel miserable. Some of the confusion now is about sore throats and the difference between a sore throat with the flu, which is due to a viral infection, and strep throat, which is a bacterial infection. As for most things in life, nothing is 100 percent and the same goes for viral and bacterial sore throats. But, with that being said, there are certain things that might make a parent think more about a viral sore throat than strep throat and vice versa. Viral sore throats, which we are seeing a ton of with the flu right now, are typically associated with other viral symptoms which include cough, and upper respiratory symptoms like congestion or runny nose. A viral sore throat may or may not be accompanied by a fever. In the case of flu, there is usually a fever over 100 degrees. With a viral sore throat you often do not see swollen lymph nodes in the neck (feel along the jaw line) and it doesn’t hurt to palpate the neck. If you can get your child to open their mouth and say “AHHH” you can see the back of their throat and their tonsils, and despite your child having pain, the tonsils do not really look red, inflamed or “pussy”. Even though it hurts every time you swallow, to look at the throat really is not very impressive. Strep throat on the other hand, typically occurs in winter and spring (that is when we see widespread strep), but there are always some strep throats lurking in the community, so it is not unusual to hear that “so and so” has strep, but you don’t hear a lot of that right now. Over the next 2 months, there will be a lot more strep throat. Strep throat most often affects the school-aged child from five to 15 years. Children get a sudden sore throat, usually have fever, and do not typically have other upper respiratory symptoms (cough, congestion). This is another opportunity to feel your child’s neck and see if their lymph nodes are swollen, as strep usually gives you large tender nodes along the jaw line. When you look at the throats of kids with strep they usually have big, red, beefy tonsils (looks like raw meat) and may have red dots (called petechia) on the roof of the mouth. The throat just looks “angry”. Sometimes a child will complain of headache and abdominal pain with strep throat. Some children vomit with strep throat. The only way to confirm strep throat, again, a bacterial infection, is to do a swab of the back of the throat to detect the presence of the bacteria. There are both rapid strep tests and overnight cultures for strep. Most doctors use the rapid strep test in their offices. If your child is found to have strep throat they will be treated with an antibiotic that they will take for 10 days. Again, antibiotics are not useful for a viral sore throat and that is why strep tests are performed. I’m sure we’ll talk more about sore throats, but in the meantime, get those flashlights out and start asking your kids to say "ahhh". That's your daily dose for today. We'll chat again tomorrow.
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About Sue Hubbard, M.D.

Dr. Sue Hubbard is an award winning pediatrician and medical editor for www.kidsdr.com.  She is a native of Washington, D.C. who travelled south to attend the University of Texas at Austin and never left.Read More