When a child walks up to a parent in the morning and exclaims, "My throat hurts," often the first guess that comes to that parent's mind is strep throat. Did you know that a sore throat can be caused by a virus or bacteria, and there are very different ways to treat them? Here's what parents need to know about the differences.
The most common bacteria to cause a sore throat are Group A Streptococcus pyogenes—or what you know as strep throat. Strep throat is a common illness that usually rears its ugly, painful head in the winter or spring months, but can occur any time of the year. It can infect people of all ages. The most common symptoms include:
- sudden onset of sore throat—pain, itchiness or irritation of the throat
- difficulty swallowing food and liquids or increased pain in the throat when you swallow
- swollen lymph nodes in the neck
- stomach aches
- red or white spots on the back of the throat
- enlarged tonsils
When your child has a sore throat, it is very common for a doctor or physician assistant to perform a rapid strep test in the office when you visit. If the rapid strep test is positive for the strep bacteria, often a provider will start your child on an antibiotic. If left untreated, strep throat can spread to other places in the body and cause more serious illnesses such as scarlet fever, rheumatic fever, and heart or kidney damage—when strep throat is treated with antibiotics there is very little risk of developing these more serious complications. If the rapid strep test is negative, but the provider is very concerned for strep throat, they will send it to the lab for a culture.
If the rapid strep test is negative, and your child is experiencing the symptoms above, it can indicate that the sore throat is being caused by a virus. Sore throats are often caused by a variety of different viruses that cannot—and should not—be treated with antibiotics. Instead, a provider will tell you to use Motrin (ibuprofen) or Tylenol (Acetaminophen) for the pain or fever, as well as encourage the use of cool liquids, soft foods, cough drops for older kids, honey (if greater than 1 year old), and rest.
Both the strep bacteria and the viruses that cause sore throats are very contagious, and are spread through mucus droplets when a sick person coughs or sneezes, shares food or drinks, or touches surfaces such as doorknobs or toys with unwashed hands.
Check out the following tips on how to prevent the spread of these diseases and to keep yourself healthy in the process:
- Wash your hands before and after touching your eyes, nose or mouth, after using the restroom, and before you eat or drink. In fact, we encourage you to wash your hands frequently and teach your kids good hand washing practices.
- Be sure to cough or sneeze into your sleeve instead of into your hand.
- Avoid sharing food, drink, or eating utensils and try to make a habit of keeping your hands away from your face.
The Kid Clinic is a school-based pediatric clinic offering medical care and counseling services for Campbell County students in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade and their siblings ages 2 weeks and up. It is located at 800 Butler Spaeth Rd., across from St. Matthew's Catholic Church. The Kid Clinic is open Monday-Friday from 8 am-5 pm. For more information, call 307-688-8700 or visit
The Kid Clinic is a collaborative effort between Campbell County Health and Campbell County Campbell County School District District.
This blog was written by Valerie Amstadt, PA-C, Kid Clinic