The Intersection of Strep Throat and COVID-19: What to Know

Apr 18, 2024 | 5 min read

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Strep throat and COVID-19 are both contagious diseases that affect the respiratory system, though they are caused by different pathogens—a bacterium and a virus, respectively. Accurate diagnosis and targeted treatments are crucial for effective management and recovery from these infections.

strep throat and covid

What You Need to Know About Strep Throat and COVID-19

Understanding Strep Throat

Strep throat is a bacterial infection that primarily affects the throat and tonsils. It is caused by the bacterium Group A Streptococcus. Common in children and adolescents, strep throat can also affect adults, particularly those frequently in close contact with young people.

The typical symptoms include:

  • Sore throat, often severe and sudden
  • Pain when swallowing
  • Fever
  • Swollen, tender lymph nodes on the neck
  • Red and swollen tonsils, sometimes with white patches or streaks of pus
  • Tiny red spots on the area at the back of the roof of the mouth

Strep throat can often be mistaken for other throat-related conditions such as throat herpes, mononucleosis, tonsillitis, and pharyngitis. Each of these conditions shares some symptoms with strep throat but also has distinct differences that are crucial for diagnosis and treatment. 

Strep throat is highly contagious, spreading through respiratory droplets when an infected person coughs or sneezes. It's particularly prevalent in crowded environments like schools and daycare centers.

Understanding COVID-19

COVID-19, caused by the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, is a viral infection that primarily affects the respiratory system, though its impact can be wide-ranging across different organs. The virus emerged in late 2019 and quickly spread globally, leading to the ongoing pandemic.

Key symptoms of COVID-19 include:

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Loss of taste or smell
  • Sore throat
  • Congestion or runny nose

COVID-19 is highly transmissible through close contact with an infected person, particularly through coughs, sneezes, and even speaking. The virus can also spread by touching surfaces contaminated with the virus and then touching the face, especially the mouth, nose, or eyes.

Symptom Comparison

Distinguishing Between Strep Throat and COVID-19 Symptoms

To effectively manage your health, recognizing the differences and similarities in symptoms between strep throat and COVID-19 is crucial. Here's a comparative look:

Symptom Strep Throat COVID-19
Sore Throat Common, severe Common, less severe
Cough Rare Common
Fever Common Common
Swollen Lymph Nodes Common in the neck Less common
Red or White Patches Common on tonsils Rare
Loss of Taste or Smell Rare Common
Shortness of Breath Rare Common
Fatigue Sometimes Common
Headache Less common Common

If you're unsure about your symptoms, the Symptom Checker can offer initial guidance. Online tools are helpful for preliminary insights but should not replace seeing a healthcare professional, particularly if your symptoms are severe or do not improve.

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When to Seek Medical Attention

Recognizing when to seek medical attention can be pivotal in effectively treating either condition. Here are specific symptoms that warrant a visit to the doctor:

  • Persistent or severe sore throat
  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • High fever lasting more than 48 hours
  • Symptoms that improve but then return worse
  • Difficulty swallowing or opening the mouth
  • Signs of dehydration, such as no urine for over 12 hours, dry mouth, or severe weakness

Both conditions have emergency symptoms that require immediate medical attention:

  • Strep Throat: Difficulty breathing due to throat swelling, rash spreading across the body, or a high fever that doesn’t respond to typical fever reducers.
  • COVID-19: Persistent pain or pressure in the chest, new confusion, inability to stay awake, bluish lips or face.

Testing and Diagnosis

How to Test for Strep Throat

Testing for strep throat is simple and ensures that any treatment prescribed is appropriate. The most common test is the rapid antigen detection test (RADT), which delivers results within minutes. 

During this test, a healthcare provider will swab the back of your throat, targeting the tonsils and throat area, to collect a sample. This sample is quickly tested for the presence of streptococcal bacteria.

If the RADT results are negative but your symptoms still suggest strep throat, a throat culture might be recommended. This test involves sending the initial swab to a lab where the bacteria can grow and be positively identified, with results typically available in 24 to 48 hours.

While undergoing these tests, you might feel a bit of discomfort or have a gag reflex, but these sensations are brief, and the procedures are generally painless.

How to Test for COVID-19

COVID-19 testing remains a critical aspect of managing the pandemic. As of March 2024, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), the global landscape of the pandemic was marked by 292,755 reported cases worldwide, underscoring the ongoing need for vigilance and testing. The most common forms of testing include:

  • PCR Tests: The polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test is the gold standard for detecting the presence of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. This test requires a sample from a nasal or throat swab, or sometimes saliva, processed in a lab. Although highly accurate, results can take from a few hours to a few days.
  • Antigen Tests: These are rapid tests that can provide results in as little as 15 to 30 minutes. They are less accurate than PCR tests but useful for quick screenings. An antigen test also uses a nasal or throat swab to detect protein fragments specific to the Coronavirus.

Both tests are crucial tools in diagnosing COVID-19, helping to confirm if an individual is currently infected and capable of spreading the virus to others.

Treatment Options

Treating Strep Throat

Strep throat, being a bacterial infection, is typically treated with antibiotics. Common antibiotics include penicillin or amoxicillin, which are effective in eliminating the bacteria and reducing the risk of spreading the infection to others. It’s essential to complete the full course of antibiotics as prescribed, even if symptoms improve, to prevent complications.

Alongside antibiotic treatment, managing symptoms at home is important:

  • Stay hydrated: Drink plenty of fluids.
  • Rest: Get more sleep to help your immune system fight the infection.
  • Soothe the throat: Gargle with salt water or use throat lozenges to relieve pain.

Treating COVID-19

Treatment for COVID-19 varies depending on the severity of the symptoms. For most mild cases, management involves supportive home care:

  • Rest and hydration: Similar to treating a cold or flu.
  • Over-the-counter medications: Use these to alleviate symptoms like fever and aches.

For moderate to severe cases, antiviral drugs approved by the FDA may be necessary, along with other treatments in a medical setting. It’s crucial to follow healthcare providers' guidance and keep up to date with COVID-19 vaccinations to lessen the risk of severe symptoms and complications.

Preventing Complications and Spread

Preventing the spread of both strep throat and COVID-19 includes several key strategies:

  • Hygiene: Regular hand washing with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, using hand sanitizer when soap and water are not available.
  • Vaccines: Staying up to date with COVID-19 vaccinations and boosters as recommended.
  • Masking: Wearing masks in crowded or high-risk environments to prevent the spread of respiratory droplets.
  • Avoiding close contact: Keeping distance from those who are sick and avoiding sharing personal items like utensils and cups.

It's also crucial to complete any prescribed course of antibiotics for strep throat to prevent resistance and ensure the infection is fully resolved. Similarly, following the full treatment protocol for COVID-19, as advised by health professionals, is essential to manage the illness effectively and minimize risk of severe complications.

Frequently Asked Questions

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Key Takeaways

  • Strep Throat Testing: Utilize a rapid antigen test for quick results; consider a throat culture for more accurate diagnosis.
  • COVID-19 Testing: PCR tests are the gold standard for accuracy; antigen tests offer faster results but may lack precision.
  • Strep Throat Treatment: Antibiotics such as penicillin or amoxicillin are effective; complete the full course to prevent resistance.
  • COVID-19 Treatment: Manage mild cases at home with rest and over-the-counter medications; severe cases may require antiviral drugs and hospitalization.
  • Prevention Tips: Practice good hygiene, keep vaccinations up to date, wear masks in crowded places, and maintain social distancing to prevent spread.
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