Dr. Anjali Bhandarkar, RWJ Medical Associates

Concerned about your health? Experts from Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital Hamilton are ready to answer readers’ questions. Send your questions to askthedoc@rwjbh.org.

How can I tell if my sore throat is actually strep throat?

Telling the difference between a sore throat and strep throat can be tricky, especially because the main symptom for each illness is a scratchy, raw, painful feeling in your throat. But there are differences between the two, and a quick trip to your doctor’s office can help you figure out which one’s got you down.

Sore throat, or pharyngitis, is most commonly caused by a virus and is especially common in the cooler months when people spend more time indoors and germs spread more easily. Like the name implies, the telltale sign of a sore throat is redness and pain that causes difficulty talking and swallowing. You may also have accompanying symptoms like a runny nose, watery eyes and a low grade fever (under 101 degrees).

Strep throat is caused by a bacterial infection called streptococcus that infects the throat and the tonsils. Common symptoms are a fever higher than 101 degrees, no cough, swollen glands and white spots on the tonsils and back of the throat.

To confirm a strep throat diagnosis, your doctor will swab your tonsils and do a rapid strep test, which only takes about 10 or 15 minutes to complete. Your doctor may also use the swabs to do a throat culture. Those results can take a day or two to come back.

If your strep tests turns out positive, your doctor will treat you with a course of penicillin or a related medication if you have an allergy to penicillin.

Because a sore throat is most commonly caused by a virus, it usually can’t be treated by antibiotics. So if your strep tests turn up negative, your doctor will recommend rest, hydration, over-the-counter throat lozenges or sprays and home remedies like sipping tea and gargling a salt water solution several times a day.

—Dr. Anjali Bhandarkar, RWJ Medical Associates

This content is intended to encourage a healthy lifestyle. For medical advice and treatment, see a physician. Concerned about your health? Send your questions to askthedoc@rwjbh.org.