Strep throat is a highly contagious infection. It causes swelling of the tonsils and the throat, but you can still get it even if you don’t have tonsils. Not having tonsils may reduce the severity of this infection. It may also reduce the number of times you come down with strep.

If you frequently get strep throat, your doctor might recommend removing your tonsils. This procedure is called a tonsillectomy. It can help reduce the number of strep throat cases you get. However, this doesn’t mean that not having tonsils makes you completely immune to strep throat.

What causes strep throat?

Strep throat is a bacterial infection. It’s derived from Streptococcus bacteria. The infection is spread through saliva. You don’t have to directly touch someone with strep throat. It can spread through the air if someone with the infection coughs or sneezes. It can also be spread among common surfaces due to a lack of handwashing.

Having tonsils doesn’t mean you’ll get strep throat, just as not having tonsils doesn’t make you immune to this infection. In both cases, exposure to the strep bacteria puts you at risk.

People who have their tonsils are at an increased risk for more frequent cases of strep throat. This is especially true in children. Not having tonsils could decrease the chances that the bacteria will grow in the throat. Also, your symptoms may not be as severe if you don’t have tonsils.

Symptoms of strep throat

Strep throat often starts as a typical sore throat. Within about three days of the initial sore throat, you may develop additional symptoms, including:

  • swelling and redness of your tonsils
  • patches inside the throat that are red and white in color
  • white patches on your tonsils
  • fever
  • difficulty or pain when swallowing
  • nausea or stomachache
  • rashes
  • headaches
  • tenderness in the neck from swollen lymph nodes

If you no longer have your tonsils, you can still experience the above symptoms with strep throat. The only difference is you won’t have swollen tonsils.

Sore throats that aren’t strep may be caused by a virus. These can be accompanied by:

  • fever
  • headache
  • swollen lymph nodes
  • difficulty swallowing

Diagnosing strep throat

To diagnose strep throat, your doctor will first look for signs of a bacterial infection inside your mouth. A sore throat accompanied with white or red patches in the throat is likely caused by a bacterial infection and will need further evaluation.

If you have these patches inside your mouth, your doctor may take a swab of a fluid sample from the back of your throat. This is also called a rapid strep test because the results are available within 15 minutes.

A positive result means you likely have strep. A negative result means you likely don’t have strep. However, your doctor may send the sample out for further evaluation. At this point, a lab technician looks at the sample under a microscope to see if any bacteria are present.

Treating strep throat

Strep throat is a bacterial infection, so it must be treated with an antibiotic. You’ll likely start feeling better within 24 hours after beginning treatment. Even if you start seeing an improvement in symptoms after a few days, still take your full antibiotic prescription to prevent any complications. Antibiotics are typically prescribed for 10 days at a time.

Sore throats caused by viral infections resolve on their own with time and rest. Antibiotics can’t treat viral infections.

Frequent strep throat may warrant a tonsillectomy. Your doctor may recommend the procedure if you have strep throat seven times or more within a 12-month period. This doesn’t fully cure or prevent strep throat. Removing the tonsils will likely reduce the number of infections and the severity of the strep symptoms, though.

Preventing strep throat

Strep throat is highly contagious, so prevention is key. Even if you no longer have your tonsils, encountering others with strep throat puts you at risk of catching the infection.

Strep throat is most common in school-aged children, but it can occur in teens and adults, too. You’re at risk if you’re in regular contact with people within close quarters.

It’s important to practice good hygiene and a healthy lifestyle. Doing so can help maintain a healthy immune system. You should:

  • Wash your hands regularly.
  • Avoid touching your face.
  • If you know someone is sick, consider wearing a mask to protect yourself.
  • Get enough sleep and exercise.
  • Eat a well-balanced diet.

If you have strep throat, stay home from work or school until your doctor says you’re in the clear. This way, you can help prevent the infection from spreading to others. It may be safe to be around others if you’ve been on an antibiotic and are fever-free for at least 24 hours.

What’s the outlook?

Strep throat is an uncomfortable and highly contagious illness. If you’re thinking about getting a tonsillectomy because of frequent cases of strep throat, talk to your doctor. Removing your tonsils won’t prevent strep throat in the future, but it can help reduce the number of infections you do get.