Does your throat feel irritated or scratchy with mild discomfort that worsens when you swallow? Most of us are familiar with the uncomfortable feelings associated with a sore throat. The cause of a sore throat isn't always obvious since several conditions cause these symptoms.
Sore throats are very common, and up until a couple of years ago, having a sore throat wouldn't be much cause for concern.
Now, if you are experiencing a sore throat, it's only natural to wonder if you have COVID-19, especially now that COVID cases are rising again. It may be something less serious, such as strep throat.
Both illnesses can make your throat feel sore and scratchy. Although strep throat and COVID-19 share similar symptoms, there are a few ways to tell them apart.
In this post, we'll walk you through the differences to help you understand what's causing your symptoms and take the appropriate next steps.
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It's easy to confuse strep throat and COVID-19 because the diseases have many common symptoms. Before we get into the differences between strep throat and COVID-19, let's take a look at their shared symptoms, which may include:
Sore or irritated throat
Swollen lymph nodes
Nausea or vomiting
The main shared symptom between strep throat and COVID-19 is a sore throat. Other symptoms such as headache, stomachache, and swollen lymph nodes will vary from person to person.
When it comes to transmission, both infections are very similar. Strep throat and COVID-19 spread from person to person through tiny airborne droplets. Sneezing, coughing, and even talking nearby can transmit these diseases. Both infections can also spread through shared food or drinks.
While unlikely, you can also pick up the disease-causing agents from surfaces such as doorknobs and transfer them to your nose, mouth, or eyes. Both infections cause a respiratory illness that can be severe.
Some strep throat symptoms are similar to COVID-19 symptoms, including a sore throat. As a result, most people are alarmed when they wake up with a sore throat. Still, a sore throat doesn't automatically mean you have COVID-19.
Knowing the difference between strep throat and COVID-19 can make it easier to deal with the anxiety of contracting the novel coronavirus and take steps to protect your loved ones. Let's examine the differences between the two illnesses, focusing on causes, symptoms, and treatment.
Although strep throat and COVID-19 are respiratory diseases, the two illnesses have very different causes. Strep is a bacterial infection spawning from a bacterium known as Streptococcus pyogenes (group A Streptococcus.) Although this bacterial infection is not as dangerous as COVID-19, complications can occur if you don’t get treatment.
On the other hand, COVID-19 is a viral infection caused by a virus known as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2). SARS-CoV-2 is part of a group of viruses that can cause disease in animals and humans. Scientists believe the new strain of coronavirus originated in bats or pangolins before transmission to humans in Wuhan, China.
While you can contract strep throat and COVID-19 through infected droplets from a sick person, there are some key differences in how you will feel if you have either illness. Both illnesses can produce the same symptoms, including sore throat, body aches, headache, fever, and vomiting.
However, some symptoms are specific to strep throat, and others are primarily associated with COVID-19.
Some specific strep throat symptoms are:
A body rash
Tender or swollen lymph nodes at the front of the neck
Swollen red tonsils
Small red spots (petechiae) on the roof of the mouth
White spots or patches on the tonsils, sometimes with streaks of pus
Pain when swallowing
If you feel you are dealing with a strep throat infection, call your doctor promptly to schedule a strep test and get an accurate diagnosis.
On the other hand, you are more likely to have COVID-19 if you're experiencing any of these symptoms:
Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
Loss of taste or smell
Congestion or runny nose
If you suspect COVID-19, seek the advice of a medical professional. In the meantime, try to stay home and avoid contact with others.
Another way to differentiate between strep throat and COVID-19 is by checking how quickly your symptoms manifest. In cases of strep throat, sore throat and other symptoms seem to develop quite rapidly. Conversely, COVID-19 symptoms tend to appear gradually.
According to the CDC, COVID-19 symptoms may appear 2-14 days¹ after the virus enters the body. This duration after exposure and before developing symptoms is called the incubation period. You can still transmit COVID-19 during this period.
Strep throat is usually a mild infection, but the symptoms can be excruciating. If left untreated, strep throat can lead to complications.
Treatment usually involves antibiotics to clear the infection and other-the-counter pain medications to soothe painful symptoms. Your doctor may prescribe penicillin or amoxicillin if you’re not allergic to penicillin.
Because COVID-19 is a viral disease, there's no cure, though researchers are still working hard to find one. Still, antivirals are appropriate in some instances.²
Fortunately, most cases of COVID-19 are mild-to-moderate,³ and you can manage the infection at home. You can improve your symptoms with over-the-counter medications. However, some people develop life-threatening symptoms that require emergency care.
It can be difficult to know if your sore throat is strep-related or caused by COVID-19. If you can access COVID-19 testing, you should test as soon as possible if you’re concerned. If you can’t access testing, speak to your doctor as soon as possible. Strep throat can cause complications, so it’s wise to seek medical attention for tests if you have corresponding symptoms.
While both illnesses can produce many of the same symptoms, some key differences exist. Sore throat that starts very quickly and fever without a cough are the most common symptoms of strep throat. Coughing, runny nose, a net loss of taste and smell, and shortness of breath suggest COVID-19 or some other viral infection.
Of course, only a trained medical professional with proper diagnostic capabilities can determine whether you have strep throat or COVID-19. This guide only provides some clarity as you await proper diagnosis.
If you have a sore throat that persists for more than a few days, you should get tested for both strep throat and COVID-19. Your doctor can diagnose both conditions with rapid antigen or PCR swab tests.
Do you still have questions about strep throat and COVID-19? We've compiled a list of frequently asked questions about strep throat and COVID-19.
Yes, a scratchy throat can be a symptom of COVID-19. Sore throat is quite common in COVID-19, especially with newer variants. But it's not the only symptom, and a sore throat doesn't necessarily mean you have contracted the novel coronavirus. There are plenty of other possible causes for your sore throat, including strep throat, the common cold, and allergies.⁴
There's only one way to know for sure: By getting a COVID test. However, if you have a sore throat with no additional symptoms, it's less likely to be COVID-19. Other symptoms, such as coughing, difficulty breathing, loss of taste and smell, fever, or diarrhea, typically accompany a sore throat in COVID-19 cases.
You can get an at-home COVID-19 test to find out for sure. If you have symptoms, the CDC recommends⁵ testing as soon as the symptoms develop. Follow your at-home COVID-19 test instructions precisely for an accurate result.
Again, a strep test is the only way to get an accurate diagnosis. Generally speaking, if you have a sore throat with a fever and no cough or a runny nose, it's more likely that strep throat is what ails you. Check if your lymph nodes are swollen and for exudate (white spots) on the tonsils. Talk to your doctor if you think you have a strep throat infection.
While a sore throat by itself is typically not a huge cause for concern, a strep throat infection usually requires medical attention. The disease-causing bacteria can spread to other parts of the body leading to various complications, including kidney disease.⁶ Strep throat infection complications are uncommon, but they can occur.
Symptoms of COVID-19 | Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Antiviral drugs that are approved, authorized, or under evaluation for the treatment of COVID-19 | NIH: Covid-19 Treatment Guidelines
Clinical characteristics of COVID-19 | European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control
Sore throat | Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
COVID-19 testing: What you need to know | Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Post-streptococcal glomerulonephritis: All you need to know | Centers for Disease Control and Prevention