Is “strep throat” just another word for a sore throat? Will it go away if you gargle saltwater? Is it caused by a virus? Does it even matter? Most importantly, is it dangerous? We’re here to clear the air!
Strep throat is caused by a bacteria called Streptococcus pyogenes, also known as Group A Streptococcus. It is very important to distinguish the cause of a sore throat because infections caused by bacteria are treated very differently than infectious causes from viruses such that cause the common cold (rhinovirus, adenovirus) or viruses that cause mono (Epstein Barr or cytomegalovirus). Strep throat can also present similarly to other causes of the sore throat including GERD (reflux), seasonal allergies, and postnasal drip. It is important to distinguish between these causes as well because they’re all treated differently.
If you have a sore throat due to an infection, is it better to have strep or a virus? This is a question that doctors are asked frequently, and the answer is…it depends. If you have access to healthcare and antibiotics, then strep can be treated much more effectively than sore throats due to viruses. Strep will not just go away by gargling saltwater or by drinking tea with honey. Antibiotics are required and will usually get you feeling better within a day or so. On the other hand, there is no “cure” for viruses and the best that we can offer is symptomatic improvement while your immune system takes care of the rest. As my dad used to say, “The common cold lasts a week without treatment and 7 days with treatment!”
What happens if you have strep throat and are unable to access healthcare or decide that you want to “tough it out?” Well, if the diagnosis is delayed for a few days, it’s usually not dangerous, but it’s definitely not wise to wait too long. After about 9 days of leaving it untreated, you run the risk of developing long-term kidney problems or rheumatic fever which can cause severe disease of the heart valves.
How do I know if I have strep throat? Well, there are certain signs that can certainly point towards it such as sore throat without cough, fever, swollen lymph nodes in the neck, and white patches on the tonsils, but these are just rough guidelines. Click here for a list of exclusively visible symptoms. Fortunately, rapid strep tests are readily available and are as simple to use as a pregnancy test for most people. Rapid strep tests such as this are more likely to accurately diagnose or rule out strep throat than using guidelines based on symptoms alone. If you want to learn more about how these tests work and their reliability, click here!
Written By: Dr. Rob Lapporte