In this article:
- Strep throat is a bacterial infection caused by Streptococcus (strep bacteria).
- This disease has a sudden onset and is highly contagious.
- Sore throat, headache, fever, bad breath, and nausea are the common symptoms of strep throat.
- If left untreated, strep throat can cause severe medical problems.
- Self-care measures can be adopted to alleviate the symptoms.
- It is necessary to take steps to prevent yourself from contracting or spreading strep throat.
What Is Strep Throat?
Streptococcal pharyngitis, commonly known as “strep throat,” is a contagious mild bacterial infection of the larynx, tonsils, and/or pharynx (throat). It is caused by group A Streptococcus. This bacteria can cause mild skin infections, cellulitis, impetigo, and some serious problems. (1)
Strep bacteria can spread in the following ways:
- Airborne droplets: When an individual with strep throat breathes, sneezes, or coughs, the bacteria-containing saliva droplets are released in the surrounding environment. Breathing in the airborne droplets can spread the infection to a healthy individual.
- Saliva: Sharing foods or drinks with an infected individual can spread the bacteria present in their saliva.
- Contact: Shaking hands with a person suffering from strep throat or touching the objects they have used may transfer the bacteria onto your hand. If you touch your mouth or nose without washing your hands first, the bacteria can then enter your body and cause infection.
Symptoms of Strep Throat
Strep throat gives rise to the following symptoms:
- Soreness and pain in the throat (sore throat)
- Redness and inflammation of the throat
- Body pain and headache
- Yellow or white pus-filled spots in the throat
- Swollen neck glands (lymph nodes)
- Nausea and vomiting
- Loss of appetite
- Pain in the abdomen (2)
- Bad breath
Diagnosing Strep Throat
The most commonly used method of diagnosing strep throat is a rapid strep test. The doctor collects a mucus sample from the back of the throat using a long cotton swab. This test takes around 15 minutes to provide results.
The doctor may also opt for a throat culture. For this, he will collect mucus in a way similar to the rapid strep test. The sample is then sent to the lab for culture. It takes around 2 days to obtain the results of a throat culture.
These tests are not always 100% accurate. A negative result only indicates the absence of strep bacteria. When the tests are negative, the sore throat results from other reasons not detectable with this limited test. Further testing may need to be done.
Medical Treatment for Strep Throat
Because strep throat is a bacterial infection, the use of antibiotics is the standard treatment. Judicious use of antibiotics is necessary to prevent the induction of drug resistance in bacteria and other side effects in your body.
It is important to complete the prescribed course of antibiotics to completely eliminate the bacteria, prevent a possible relapse of the infection, and inhibit the bacteria from remaining in the body.
Antibiotics should only be provided when the tests confirm the presence of strep bacteria. Patients without significant symptoms may not benefit from the use of antibiotics. Unnecessary use of antibiotics may have more risks and side effects than benefits. (3)
To curb the growth of strep bacteria, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics such as penicillin and amoxicillin. The course of the antibiotics is usually 10 days long and should be completed even if the symptoms subside early.
Other medications may be prescribed to treat the symptoms associated with strep throat. These include:
- NSAIDs (such as ibuprofen and naproxen): help relieve pain as well as reduce swelling and fever
- Analgesics (such as acetaminophen): reduce fever, pain, and soreness in the throat
Self-Care for Strep Throat Relief
The symptoms of strep throat can often be managed with the help of the following measures:
- Drink generous amounts of nutritive fluids such as clear soup. Drinking cold liquids can temporarily numb or desensitize the nerve endings in the throat, which can ease the pain and soreness associated with this condition.
- Do not consume solid food if swallowing causes pain. Instead, follow a soft diet that includes easy-to-gulp foods such as frozen yogurt, mashed potatoes, and applesauce.
When the pain subsides, eat healthy foods to regain your strength and boost your immune system.
- Gargle with a warm saline solution to help kill the bacteria and comfort your irritated throat.
- Suck on hardy sugar-free candy or lozenges.
- Voice rest is important. Avoid yelling and excessive talking as these may strain your voice box. Whispering is considered to be even more stressful for the throat and voice.
- Use a room humidifier to maintain moisture in your surroundings.
- Apply a warm compress on your neck.
Is Strep Throat Contagious?
Strep bacteria are easily spreadable via airborne droplets or through contact with an infected person or contaminated surfaces. Without the use of antibiotics, the infection stays communicable for 2-3 weeks. Patients usually become noncontagious after 24 hours of starting antibiotics.
How to Prevent the Infection From Spreading
To avoid spreading your infection and exposing others to the strep bacteria, try the following tips:
- Maintain distance from other healthy individuals in the early days of the infection up until you have been on an antibiotic course for at least 2 days.
- Cover your mouth with a tissue or your arm when you cough; quickly dispose of the tissues in the appropriate receptacle thereafter.
- Maintaining hand sanitation is important. Always wash your hands before touching cutleries or food, especially after coughing.
- Do not share any kind of toiletries with others. Utilize single-use paper cups and towels to minimize the chance of spreading the infection.
- Avoid sharing your utensils and food.
- Do not drink alcohol or smoke.
- Avoid cooking for other people.
- Avoid going to public places such as school or work to keep yourself from spreading this highly contagious infection.
Can Strep Throat Cause a Skin Rash?
In only a few cases, a skin rash may develop during a strep infection. A strep throat with skin rash on the body is known as scarlet fever and is very rare.
In an even smaller number of cases, the bacteria may spread to the bloodstream and affect the joints, heart, kidneys, brain, and other sites. This is known as rheumatic fever.
A skin rash and sore throat are also symptoms of several other common medical conditions.
Can Strep Throat Infect the Face?
If the infection is severe and causes complications such as rheumatic fever or scarlet fever, strep throat may affect the skin or soft tissues of the face rarely. However, it remains limited to the throat in majority of the cases.
Can One Get Strep Throat from Pets?
Contracting a strep throat from your pets is a very rare occurrence but is known to happen. This may be caused by viruses or bacteria, types that often do not cause infections in humans.
Why Do Some Children Experience Recurring Strep Throat?
A weak immune system makes a child susceptible to infections. Some children may have improper antibody production due to abnormally small immune structures in their tonsils, which are unable to fight the infection.
This puts them at a greater risk of strep throat than those who have normal-sized immune structures. Repeated infections further make the children prone to the disease.
How Long Does It Take to Recover from Strep Throat?
With treatment, the pain associated with strep throat may last for 1 to 3 days. Once the antibiotic course is started, children can return to school after 24 hours, provided that they do not have fever or lethargy.
Risk Factors for Developing a Strep throat
- Strep throat is most widespread in children between 5 and 15 years of age. However, it can occur in people of all age groups.
- The risk of contracting strep throat increases when you come into contact with an infected person.
- The disease can easily spread in crowded places such as schools, day-care centers, and military barracks.
- Adults who are constantly surrounded by children can contract the disease easily.
- Strep throat is prevalent year-round, but it is seen to spread easily in winters and early spring.
Can Strep Throat Lead to Complications?
A severe infection caused by strep bacteria has the tendency to spread to other body parts, including:
- Middle ear: The bacteria can spread and grow behind the eardrum. This causes inflammation, also known as otitis media.
- Sinuses: The spread of bacteria to the air cavities around eyes and nose can cause sinusitis.
- Tonsils: Infection in the tonsils can cause tonsillitis. The bacteria may spread behind the tonsils and form an abscess, known as a peritonsillar abscess (quinsy).
- Voice box: Infection from the throat may spread to the structures of the voice box and cause swelling, resulting in problems speaking and breathing.
In rare cases, the following complications may arise:
- Scarlet fever: Scarlatina, or scarlet fever, develops due to infection by strep bacteria. The symptoms include high fever, bright-red rashes on the body, and a sore throat.
- Poststreptococcal glomerulonephritis: After a period of 10-14 days of infection with strep bacteria, swelling in the kidney may be observed.
- Rheumatic fever: Improper treatment of strep throat or scarlet fever can lead to the development of rheumatic fever. This poses an adverse effect on the joints, skin, brain, and heart. (4)
- Meningitis: The spread of infection to the spinal canal and the covering of the brain can cause inflammation of these structures called meningitis.
Sore Throat Vs. Tonsillitis Vs. Strep Throat
A sore throat may be a symptom of an inflammation or infection in the upper airway. Infectious causes of sore throat are usually viruses such as the common cold virus.
On the other hand, strep throat is a bacterial infection caused by group A Streptococcus.
Tonsillitis is a condition where your tonsils become inflamed or infected and then swell up.
Strep Throat Vs. Mono
Mono, or infectious mononucleosis, is a viral infection commonly caused by the Epstein-Barr virus. It is common in teenagers.
On the other hand, strep throat is caused by an infection with strep bacteria.
Both problems can exhibit similar symptoms, but they are not the same, primarily because the source of infection is different and, therefore, the treatment is also different.
When to See a Doctor
It is advised to consult your doctor if you experience the following problems along with a sore throat:
- Restricted movement of the neck or stiffness
- Pain while swallowing liquids
- Difficulty breathing
- A high fever (above 104 °F)
- Continued soreness in the throat, even after 3 days of taking antibiotics
- Dry mouth and dark urine due to dehydration
What to ask your doctor:
- What could be the reason behind my symptoms?
- What tests will be done for the diagnosis?
- Is the disease contagious? If so, when is it safe to return to public places?
- How soon will the symptoms subside after starting treatment?
- Are the symptoms severe?
What your doctor may ask you:
- How long have you had these symptoms?
- Have you tried any treatment? Did it help or worsen the symptoms?
- Have you recently come into contact with a person suffering from strep throat?
- Have you suffered from a strep throat before? When? And what treatment regimen did you follow?
- Have you had any other medical conditions?
Proper self-care and a full course of antibiotics can treat the majority of cases of strep throat. It is important to get ample rest so that your body can focus on fighting the infection. If the symptoms do not subside, immediate medical attention is necessary.