Strep throat is a bacterial infection that causes inflammation and pain in the throat. This common condition is caused by group A streptococcus bacteria. Strep throat can affect children and adults of all ages. However, it is especially common in children between the ages of 5 and 15 (NLM, 2011). Sneezing and coughing can spread the infection from person-to-person.
The severity of strep throat can vary from person-to-person. Some people experience mild symptoms like a sore throat, whereas other people have more severe symptoms including fever and difficulty swallowing. Common symptoms of strep throat include:
- sudden fever
- sore throat (red throat with white patches)
- loss of appetite
- swollen lymph nodes in the neck
- trouble swallowing
Symptoms of strep throat typically develop within five days of exposure to the bacteria.
Not all sore throats are a result of a strep infection. Other illnesses can cause this symptom, too. These include the common cold, a sinus infection, post-nasal drip, and acid reflux. Sore throats caused by other medical conditions usually improve on their own with or without treatment in a few days.
If you complain of a persistent sore throat, your doctor will examine your throat and check for signs of inflammation. Your doctor may also check your neck for swollen lymph nodes and ask about other symptoms. If your doctor suspects strep throat, he or she may do a rapid strep test in the office.
This test determines whether your sore throat is caused by a strep infection or another type of bacteria/germ. Your doctor swabs the back of your throat with a long cotton swab, collecting a sample. Your doctor will then send the sample to the lab to look for signs of bacteria. Results are available in about five minutes. If your rapid strep test is negative, but your doctor feels that you have strep throat, he or she can send your sample to an outside lab for additional testing. These results are available within a few days.
If you’re diagnosed with strep throat, your doctor will prescribe an antibiotic to treat the infection. These medications inhibit the spread of bacteria and infections. Several types of antibiotics are available. However, penicillin and amoxicillin are the most common medications for a strep infection.
It is important that you finish your antibiotic treatment course in order to completely kill the infection. Some people stop taking their medication when symptoms improve, which can trigger a relapse, and symptoms may return.
In addition to antibiotics, several home-care treatments can improve symptoms of strep throat. These remedies include:
- drinking warm liquids (lemon water and hot teas)
- drinking cold liquids to help numb the throat
- turning on a cool-mist humidifier
- taking over-the-counter pain relievers, such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen
- sucking on throat lozenges
- adding 1/2 teaspoon of salt to 1 cup of water and gargling the mixture
If you suspect that you or your child has strep throat, avoid contact with other people until after you’ve been on an antibiotic for 48 hours. You are no longer contagious after this time. Because the strep bacteria can live on surfaces, you should throw away toothbrushes and pacifiers once you or your child is no longer contagious. This is necessary to avoid a re-infection.
If treated, symptoms of strep throat improve within one week. But if left untreated, strep throat can cause serious complications. These complications include:
- ear infection
- rheumatic fever—inflammatory disease that affects the joints, the heart, and skin
- post-streptococcal glomerulonephritis—inflammation of the kidneys
- mastoiditis—infection of the mastoid bone in the skull
- scarlet fever—toxins created by the strep infection cause a scarlet-colored rash to develop on different parts of the body
- guttate psoriasis—condition that causes small red teardrop spots to appear on the body
- peritonsillar abscess—pus-filled infection develops in the back of the tonsils
To reduce your risk of complications, contact your doctor if your strep throat symptoms do not improve within 48 hours of taking an antibiotic. He or she may need to prescribe a different type of antibiotic to fight the infection.