Overview

Strep throat is a highly contagious bacterial infection that can make your throat very sore and scratchy.

If you’ve been exposed to the bacteria, you can be contagious beginning a few days before symptoms start. You will remain contagious until you have been on antibiotics for at least 24 hours.

Read on to learn more about how strep throat is spread and treated, and what you can do to reduce your risk for this condition.

How’s it spread?

Strep throat is an infection of the throat and tonsils. It’s caused by a type of bacteria called group A Streptococcus (GAS).

These bacteria can spread from person to person through contact with respiratory droplets from someone who’s infected with the bacteria. These droplets may be spread when a person with strep throat coughs or sneezes.

If you’re exposed to these droplets and then touch your mouth, nose, or eyes, you may become sick with strep throat. You may also become infected if you share food or drink with someone who has strep throat, or come into contact with a contaminated object, such as a faucet or doorknob.

If you’ve been infected with strep, it can take between two to five days until you develop symptoms.

Incidence

Strep throat is most common in school-age children. Between 4 and 6 of every 20 children with a sore throat have strep throat compared to only 1 to 3 of every 20 adults.

Adults that are frequently around school-age children have a higher risk of getting strep throat. Since strep throat is very contagious, being in crowded places, such as schools or daycare centers, can increase your risk of becoming sick.

You can get strep throat at any time of the year, but it’s generally more prevalent in the late fall or early spring.

Even if you’ve had strep throat before, you can get it again. Some children have recurring strep throat, and contract the disease multiple times in a year.

In the case of recurring infections, your doctor may recommend tonsil removal to help decrease the frequency of strep throat infections. This procedure is called a tonsillectomy. You can still get strep throat even after your tonsils have been removed, however.

Symptoms

The symptoms of strep throat include:

  • a sore throat that comes on suddenly
  • pain when swallowing
  • fever over 101°F (38.3°C)
  • little red spots located on the roof of your mouth
  • tonsils that are red and swollen, and may have white spots or streaks of pus
  • swollen lymph nodes in your neck
  • headache
  • nausea or vomiting

People with strep throat may also develop a rash called scarlet fever. The rash is caused by a toxin produced by the GAS bacteria. Scarlet fever is generally mild, but will need to be treated with antibiotics to prevent complications, such as rheumatic fever or kidney damage.

Treatment

Your doctor will use antibiotics to treat strep throat. Typically, penicillin or amoxicillin are used if you’re not allergic to penicillin. Other antibiotics can be used in case of an allergy.

Antibiotics may help you feel better faster. They can also shorten the amount of time that you’re contagious. Most people are no longer contagious after they have taken antibiotics for at least 24 hours. You should always be sure to completely finish your course of antibiotics even if you feel better.

In addition to antibiotics, your doctor may recommend that you take over-the-counter medications such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen to help with your symptoms.

Recovery

If you receive antibiotic treatment for your strep throat, your illness may only last for one to three days.

If left untreated, recovery will take longer and you’ll increase your risk for developing complications, such as rheumatic fever. Additionally, without treatment, you can still be contagious for several weeks, even after you stop feeling ill.

Prevention

Follow these tips to help prevent the spread of strep throat:

  • Clean your hands properly and regularly. Be sure to use soap and warm water, and or an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
  • Clean surfaces in your house if you, or someone in your house, has strep throat. Bacteria can survive for short periods of time on household items, such as doorknobs and tabletops.
  • Avoid contact with anyone who has strep throat until they have been on antibiotics for at least 24 hours.
  • If you live with, or care for someone with strep throat, be sure to wash your hands frequently, and avoid touching your face, nose, and mouth.
  • Don’t share food, drinks, or eating utensils with others. Additionally, avoid sharing personal items, such as toothbrushes, with others.
  • If you have strep, be sure to cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze. Carry disposable tissues with you. If you don’t have a tissue, sneeze into the crook of your elbow instead of into your hand.
  • If you have strep throat, be aware that you’re contagious as long as you have symptoms, and should stay home from work or school. Once you start taking antibiotics, you should stay home until you’ve been taking them for at least 24 hours.

Takeaway

Strep throat is a highly contagious bacterial disease. It’s transmitted through coming into contact with respiratory droplets that are generated when an infected person coughs or sneezes. The disease can also be spread through coming into contact with contaminated objects, such as glasses or eating utensils.

Antibiotics are used to treat strep throat. They will decrease the length of your illness and reduce the amount of time you’re contagious. If you suspect that you have strep throat, you should see your doctor in order to get tested and begin treatment.