Strep throat basics

Strep throat is caused by the bacteria Streptococcus pyogenes (group A streptococcus). Common signs and symptoms include:

If your child develops strep throat, they may also experience vomiting, stomachache, and headache.

Strep throat is highly contagious and can lead to serious complications. Learn how to lower your chances of getting strep throat — and if you get it, how to treat it and protect people around you.

Hand-washing is one of the best ways to prevent the spread of common infections, including strep throat. It’s especially helpful when you’re spending time in places where harmful germs are more common, such as hospitals, nursing homes, child care centers, and schools.

Wash your hands regularly throughout the day, especially:

  • before you prepare or eat food
  • before you touch your eyes, nose, or mouth
  • before and after you spend time with someone who is ill
  • after you use the bathroom or change a diaper
  • after you sneeze, cough, or blow your nose

Running your hands under water for a few seconds isn’t enough to kill germs. Make it count!

Wet your hands with clean water. Then lather up with soap. Scrub your hands, front and back, between your fingers, and under your fingernails, for at least 20 seconds. That’s about as long as it takes to sing the “happy birthday” song twice. Rinse your hands well. Then dry them with a clean towel or hand dryer.

Washing your hands with soap and water is the best way to keep them clean. At times when you don’t have access to soap and water, use hand sanitizer instead. It’s not quite as effective, but if it’s made up of 60 percent alcohol or more, it can kill a lot of germs.

Carry hand sanitizer with you, especially when you’re traveling somewhere without washrooms, sinks, or clean water. Read and follow the package directions to use it properly.

You and your family members can take simple steps to help stop the spread of infection at home. For example, if someone in your household has strep throat, don’t share food, drinks, eating utensils, or place settings with them. Avoid sharing face cloths, towels, and pillowcases with them too. Wash all dishes, kitchen utensils, and laundry in hot soapy water. Remember to cover your mouth and nose when you sneeze or cough, using a tissue or the inner crook of your elbow.

If you suspect you have strep throat, make an appointment with your doctor. They can diagnose you with strep throat using a simple throat culture. If you test positive for Streptococcus pyogenes, they will likely prescribe antibiotics. Your symptoms should start to improve quickly, usually within 24 to 48 hours of starting a round of antibiotics.

The course of antibiotics may last up to two weeks. To prevent rheumatic fever and other serious side effects of strep throat, it’s important to finish all your prescribed medication, even after you feel better.

In addition to antibiotics, your doctor may encourage you to take over-the-counter medications to relieve your symptoms. For example, ibuprofen and acetaminophen can ease a sore throat and reduce fever. You can also gargle warm salt water a few times a day to help relieve a sore throat.

If your child has strep throat, your doctor will likely advise you to avoid giving them aspirin. It can result in a serious illness called Reye’s syndrome.

In addition to medications, simple dietary changes may help you manage the symptoms of strep throat. For example, drink lots of water. It will keep you hydrated and moisten your throat so it’s easier to swallow. Choose foods that are soft and easy to swallow, such as soup, yogurt, and ice cream. Citrus and spicy foods will probably irritate your sore throat.

If you have a child with strep throat who won’t eat, try putting food in the blender for them or offer gelatin or ice pops.

Rest is one of the most important things you can do to regain your strength and support your immune system. Make sure you get enough sleep at night. Stay home from work or school for a day or two. And don’t engage in strenuous activities until you feel better. Taking time off from your regular activities can also help you stop the spread of strep throat to other members of your community.

The symptoms of strep throat sometimes go away on their own. But if you don’t treat it properly, strep throat can lead to other serious illnesses, including rheumatic fever. If your child has strep throat, they’re more likely to develop this potentially life-threatening complication. Antibiotics are the only way to protect against it.

If you think you or someone in your family has strep throat, make an appointment immediately. Your doctor can help you treat the infection and prevent its spread to others.