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Getting to the Bottom of a Sore Throat

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By Jen Uscher
WebMD Feature

First it's that rough feeling, like you swallowed a bit of sandpaper. You know what's next: a sore throat. Is it the start of a cold, strep -- or something else?

"For most sore throats, you probably don't need to see a doctor. You can treat it with over-the-counter remedies, take time off from work, and rest," says Jeffrey A. Linder, MD, MPH. He's an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.

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Here are some of the most common reasons people get a sore throat and tips for when to call your doctor.

Cold or Flu?

Most sore throats are caused by viral infections, such as a cold or flu. Often you’ll have other symptoms like a runny or stuffy nose, sneezing, cough, a mild fever, and fatigue.

It can be hard to tell the difference between a cold and flu, but the flu tends to cause worse symptoms, like high fever and muscle aches.

If your sore throat is from a virus, antibiotics won’t help. Instead, gargle with warm salt water and use over-the-counter treatments like lozenges and sprays.

The Dreaded Strep

Strep throat is an infection caused by bacteria. Symptoms can include throat pain, white patches on your tonsils, swollen lymph nodes in your neck, and fever. When you have strep throat, you usually don’t have a runny nose or cough.

Anyone can get strep throat, but children between the ages of 5 and 15 tend to get it most often. In adults, only 10% of sore throats are caused by strep, says Linder.

To find out if you have it, your doctor may swab the back of your throat to do a rapid strep test. If it's positive, your doctor will prescribe an antibiotic.

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