One of the hardest things about being a parent is seeing your child in pain. While a sore throat may not be life-threatening, it can be so painful that your child doesn’t want to eat, drink or swallow, especially if it’s strep throat. That’s hard on them, hard on you, hard on everybody. At Westchester Health Pediatrics, we understand, we’re parents too.
If the cause of your child’s sore throat is a virus, there’s much we as physicians can do, other than suggest lots of rest and liquids. If it’s strep, however, that’s an infection caused by the bacterium Streptococcus pyogenes that needs to be treated with antibiotics as soon as possible. Here’s how to tell the difference.
When your child has a sore throat, it’s likely due to a virus, which is typically not treated with prescription medication. Often, children with sore throats due to viruses have a cold at the same time. They may develop a mild fever, but typically they aren’t very sick, reports healthychildren.org. Symptoms can include tiredness, achiness, loss of appetite and general lethargy.
One particular virus (Coxsackie), occurring most often during the summer and fall, may cause your child to have a somewhat higher fever, more difficulty swallowing and a sicker overall feeling. If your child has a Coxsackie infection, you may see one or more blisters in the throat and on the hands and feet (often called Hand, Foot and Mouth disease).
Another virus, infectious mononucleosis (“mono”) can produce a sore throat, often accompanied with tonsillitis (inflamed tonsils) and extreme fatigue.
As stated above, strep throat is caused by the bacterium Streptococcus pyogenes. Because strep throat is an infection, it’s important to identify it so that your child can start a course of antibiotics as soon as possible. As far as symptoms, they tend to depend on the child’s age.
Infants: low fever and a thickened or bloody nasal discharge
Toddlers: like infants, low fever and a thickened or bloody nasal. Also, crankiness, no appetite and swollen glands in the neck. Sometimes toddlers will complain of tummy pain instead of a sore throat.
Children over age three: an extremely painful throat, fever over 102 F, swollen glands in the neck and pus on the tonsils.
How to know for sure if it’s strep
Only a rapid strep test or throat culture can determine if your child has strep.
Rapid strep test
A rapid strep test involves swabbing the back of the throat and then testing the swab, which gives a positive or negative answer within minutes. If the test is positive, your child will probably be prescribed a course of antibiotics. If it comes back negative but your child’s doctor still suspects strep, he/she might still perform a throat culture. A negative test means that the infection is probably due to a virus and that antibiotics are not needed.
While it takes more time to produce results, a throat culture sometimes finds infections that the rapid strep test misses. This is very important to know with children, since they can get rheumatic fever from an untreated strep throat infection. For adults, it is usually not necessary to do a throat culture following a negative rapid strep test, since they are generally not at risk of getting rheumatic fever following a strep throat infection, according to the CDC.
The good news: antibiotics will help your child feel better soon
Once your child has started antibiotics for strep throat, he/she should start feeling better in 1-2 days. Call your pediatrician if your child is not feeling better after taking antibiotics for 48 hours.
Serious complications from strep are not common but can happen
Complications can occur after a strep throat infection if the bacteria spreads to other parts of the body, says the CDC. These complications can include:
- Pus abscesses around the tonsils
- Swollen lymph nodes in the neck
- Sinus infection
- Ear infection
- Rheumatic fever(a type of heart disease)
- Post-streptococcal glomerulonephritis(a kidney disease)
How to avoid getting strep in the first place
While there is no vaccine to prevent strep throat, there are certain things you can do to help you and your family from contracting it. The CDC recommends:
- Wash your hands This is especially important after coughing or sneezing, and before eating or preparing food.
- Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze.
- Discard used tissues.
- Cough or sneeze into your upper sleeve or elbow, not your hands, if you don’t have a tissue.
- Use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer if soap and water are not available.
- Wash glasses, plates and utensils after someone who is sick uses them.
Helpful articles we recommend
- Strep Throat: All You Need to Know
- The Difference between a Sore Throat, Strep & Tonsillitis
- Cold vs. Strep: How to Tell the Difference
You’ve got questions, we’ve got answers.
At any age, count on the pediatricians of Westchester Health and Northwell Physician Partners for vital information to help you raise happy, healthy kids. Whether you’re raising teenagers, adolescents, toddlers or newborns, we’ve got years of experience helping parents take care of their children and we’re ready to help you with yours. Please call us at (914) 228-0330.
Worried that your child’s sore throat might be strep? Come see us.
If you think your child might have strep throat, please call (914) 228-0330 to make an appointment to see one of our Westchester Health Pediatrics pediatricians. We’ll examine your child, perform a strep test, and if it comes back positive, prescribe antibiotics. Most of all, we want to help your child feel better and get well, fast. Whenever, wherever you need us, we’re here for you.
By Cindee J. Ivker, MD, FAAP, Lead Pediatric Physician with Westchester Health Pediatrics, member of Northwell Health Physician Partners