Sore Throat

A sore throat can be a relatively common occurrence, especially during the cold and flu season. In fact, sore throats are usually a symptom of infection with a virus, such as a rhinovirus (a type of virus that causes inflammation of the mucous membranes that line the nose and throat).

Sometimes a sore throat can be caused by bacteria. Strep throat, for example, is caused by an infection with a type of Streptococcus bacteria. Strep throat is more common in children than in adults.

Since it is difficult to identify the cause of a sore throat from symptoms alone, a doctor can take a throat culture or do a very accurate rapid strep test to determine if your sore throat is caused by this particular type of bacteria and, if necessary, treat your sore throat using antibiotics.

If your sore throat is not caused by the bacteria that causes strep throat, you may have a viral infection. Antibiotics are not effective against a viral infection.

What Is Strep Throat?

There are many different types of bacteria. The bacteria are classified by various characteristics, including their shape. Streptococcal bacteria can cause other medical conditions, such as scarlet fever and impetigo (a skin infection that is more common among young children 2 to 6 years old than other groups).

Symptoms and Signs of Strep Throat

(Every person is different and may experience some symptoms and not others, or in various combinations.)

  • Sore throat that is red (from inflammation)
  • White patches on the tonsils or back of throat
  • Swollen lymph nodes in the neck
  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Children also may experience stomach pain, nausea or vomiting. (If you have a strep throat, you usually do not have a stuffy nose or cough.)


Diagnosing Strep Throat

The diagnosis of strep throat relies upon either a rapid strep test that can be done in 2-3 minutes, or an overnight throat cultue.  In either case, a cotton-tipped applicator is used to swab the throat and the specimen is then tested.  If the tests are negative, you will not require antibiotics because the sore throat is not related to the streptococcal bacteria.

Why Do I Have To Take All the Antibiotic Prescribed?

Even though some of your symptoms may be getting better, most likely all the disease-causing bacteria have not been killed. If you do not take all of the antibiotics prescribed, the bacteria have the opportunity to reproduce bacteria that are resistant to the antibiotic. The bacteria begin to multiply as the antibiotic leaves your system. The most important reason for taking all of the antibiotics prescribed for strep throat is not only to treat the symptoms but to avoid serious complications such as rheumatic fever (a disease characterized by pain and swelling of tissues in various parts of the body) and kidney problems.

Other Possible Causes of a Sore Throat

  • Viruses, such as those that cause the common “cold,” influenza and mononucleosis (an infection caused by a virus characterized by a high temperature, sore throat and swollen lymph nodes)
  • Allergies, such as “hay fever”
  • Laryngitis (inflammation of the larynx or “voice box”)
  • Measles
  • Mumps
  • Bacterial infections such a retropharyngeal abscesses
  • Smoking or being exposed to smoke or other polluted air


Pain in and around the throat can be a symptom of a number of medical problems. Your doctor can make an evaluation and perform tests, when necessary, to determine the cause of your sore throat.


(Adapted from American Medical Association)

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