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What is strep throat?
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.
The severity of strep throat can vary from person to person. Some people experience mild symptoms, like a sore throat. Other people have more severe symptoms, including fever and difficulty swallowing.
The common symptoms of strep throat include:
- a sudden fever, especially if it’s 101˚F (38˚C) or higher
- a sore, red throat with white patches
- a headache
- a loss of appetite
- swollen lymph nodes in the neck
- trouble swallowing
These symptoms typically develop within five days of exposure to the strep bacteria. Find out more about having strep throat without a fever.
Strep throat is a highly contagious bacterial infection.
It usually spreads through small respiratory droplets that become airborne when someone with strep throat sneezes or coughs. Learn more about why strep throat is so contagious.
Strep throat is caused by bacteria called Streptococcus pyogenes or group A Streptococcus (also known as group A strep, or GAS).
You can become infected with strep throat if you touch your eyes, nose, or mouth after being exposed to these bacteria.
Along with coughing and sneezing, strep throat can be spread when you share food or a drink with someone who’s infected.
You can also get strep throat by coming into contact with an object contaminated with group A strep bacteria, such as a doorknob or faucet, and then touching your eyes, nose, or mouth.
See your doctor if you experience any of the following:
- a sore throat that lasts longer than two days
- a sore throat with white patches
- dark, red splotches or spots on the tonsils or the top of the mouth
- a sore throat with a fine, sandpaper-like pink rash on the skin
- difficulty breathing
- difficulty swallowing
Your doctor will examine your throat and check for signs of inflammation. They may also check your neck for swollen lymph nodes and ask about other symptoms. If your doctor suspects you have strep throat, they 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 or germ. Your doctor swabs the back of your throat with a long cotton swab, collecting a sample. The sample is then sent to a lab to look for signs of bacteria.
The results are available in about 5 minutes. If your rapid strep test is negative but your doctor thinks you have strep throat, your sample may be sent to an outside lab for additional testing. These results are available within a few days. Learn more about the rapid strep test.
Because strep throat is a bacterial infection, your doctor will prescribe an antibiotic to treat it. These medications inhibit the spread of bacteria and infections. Several types of antibiotics are available.
It’s important that you finish your antibiotic treatment course to kill the infection completely. Some people stop taking their medication when symptoms improve, which can trigger a relapse. If this happens, the symptoms can return.
Penicillin and amoxicillin are the most common medications given for a strep infection. If you’re allergic to penicillin or amoxicillin, your doctor may prescribe the antibiotic azithromycin. Find out more about azithromycin for treating strep throat.
In addition to antibiotics, there are at-home treatments that can help relieve the symptoms of strep throat. These remedies include:
- drinking warm liquids, such as lemon water and tea
- 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
Natural remedies such as honey and apple cider vinegar may also help. Here are 12 natural ways to relieve a sore throat.
There is no vaccine available that prevents strep throat. One of the most effective ways to help avoid infection is by regularly washing your hands. If you can’t access soap and water, you can use a hand sanitizer instead.
Don’t share drinks or food with someone who has strep throat. If someone in your home has strep throat, don’t share their towels, sheets, or pillowcases. Wash dishes and laundry in water that’s hot and soapy.
If you have strep throat, sneeze or cough into the crook of your elbow or a tissue rather than into your hand. Be sure to wash your hands frequently. Explore more ways to prevent strep throat.
Strep throat is more common in children than in adults. Parents of school-aged children are more likely to become infected.
Adults who are frequently around children may also be more susceptible to strep throat.
Sore throats are usually caused by a virus, while group A strep bacteria cause strep throat.
Not all sore throats are a result of a strep infection. Other illnesses can cause a sore throat too. These include:
Sore throats caused by other medical conditions usually improve on their own with or without treatment in a few days. Here are 10 ways to help relieve a sore throat.
Although children are more likely than adults to have strep throat, it is very rare in toddlers under the age of 3 years. Strep throat most commonly occurs in children between the ages of 5 and 15.
Because it’s so contagious, strep throat can easily spread where children congregate, such as in day care centers and schools. Find out what to do if your baby has a sore throat.
The bacteria that causes strep throat, group A streptococcus, is not the same as group B streptococcus, which is found around the vagina or rectum. While group B streptococcus can be passed to a baby during delivery, it is unrelated to the bacteria that causes strep throat.
If you think you may have strep throat during your pregnancy, see your doctor right away to discuss treatment options.
Your doctor may prescribe antibiotics and will carefully monitor your medications. Get a better understanding of how to treat strep throat when you’re pregnant.
Essential oils are distilled from the leaves, bark, stems, and flowers of plants. They may help promote healing by killing germs and reducing inflammation.
The medical benefits of essential oils are controversial. However, studies show the following essential oils can be an effective alternative to over-the-counter medications for treating the symptoms of strep throat:
- tea tree
- wild carrot, eucalyptus, and rosemary blend
Ingesting these oils isn’t recommended. They can be inhaled or diluted with oil and added to a bath. Explore more about using these essential oils to treat a sore throat.
Most common colds are caused by a virus, while a bacterial infection causes strep throat.
When your throat is sore due to a cold, the pain usually develops gradually and disappears in a couple of days. The pain from strep throat can occur suddenly. It’s more severe and can persist for days.
Colds typically clear up on their own without the need for medical treatment. To prevent complications, like rheumatic fever, antibiotics are usually prescribed to treat strep throat.
Just like strep throat, mono symptoms can include a sore throat, fever, and swollen lymph glands. But unlike a strep throat that’s caused by a bacterial infection, mono is a viral infection. It isn’t treated with antibiotics.
Your doctor can perform tests to determine whether your sore throat is due to mono.
To reduce your risk of complications, contact your doctor if your strep throat symptoms don’t improve within 48 hours of taking an antibiotic. They may need to prescribe a different antibiotic to fight the infection.
If it’s left untreated, strep throat can cause serious complications. These may include:
- ear infection
- rheumatic fever, which is an inflammatory disease that affects the joints, the heart, and the skin
- poststreptococcal glomerulonephritis, which is an inflammation of the kidneys
- mastoiditis, which is an infection of the mastoid bone in the skull
- scarlet fever, which occurs when toxins created by the strep infection cause a scarlet-colored rash to develop on different parts of the body
- guttate psoriasis, which is a condition that causes small, red teardrop-shaped spots to appear on the body
- peritonsillar abscess, which is a pus-filled infection that develops in the back of the tonsils
You should start to feel better within a couple of days after beginning treatment for strep throat.
If you don’t have a fever, you can return to work or school 24 hours after beginning the antibiotic.