By: Dr. Maria Simbra

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — There’s still plenty of cold and flu season left to go, and you may be wondering if your sore throat is just a sore throat or something worse?

Here are some ways to tell if it’s just the run-of-the-mill sore throat or strep throat.

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“It’s really common this time of the year. We’re getting a lot of phone calls, a lot of patients coming in,” says Dr. Marc Itskowitz, an internist at Allegheny General Hospital. “The challenge is figuring out who has the flu, who has strep throat, who needs what type of medication.”

For strep throat, a bacterial infection treated with antibiotics, here’s what doctors look for: white patches on the throat and tonsils, fever over 101, swollen lymph nodes and a full body sandpaper-like rash, something more common in children.

“Patients really want a decision, do they need antibiotics now, are they going to be treated symptomatically or with antibiotics? So we rely on the rapid strep test and the clinical criteria,” explains Dr. Itskowitz.

A positive rapid strep test or throat culture indicates strep throat.

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“We typically do a rapid strep test because we can get the results back in a few minutes. The problem with a culture is that it takes a couple days to get the results back, so it’s not often helpful,” admits Dr. Itskowitz.

The features that make it less likely are sneezing, coughing and congestion, as well as a sore throat that goes away after a couple of days. If this is the case, it’s a cold and no antibiotics are needed, just time.

“You can take acetaminophen or Tylenol, or an anti-inflammatory medicine like Advil, Aleve, ibuprofen. Take it for a few days, and that’s probably the best initial treatment of sore throat,” Dr. Itskowitz advises. “If it’s not better, or you have a fever, I think you should call your doctor.”

There are potential complications from untreated strep that affect the heart, brain and other organs. Most of the time though, a sore throat is going to be from a random cold-causing virus; but there can be other reasons, too, like mono, reflux and certain sexually-transmitted diseases.

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