What is strep throat?
Most sore throats are caused by viruses, however, in some cases, the sore throat might be caused by bacteria called group A Streptococcus (group A strep). This bacteria can also cause skin infections. Experts estimate that more than 10 million group A strep infections (throat and skin) occur every year.
There may be pain when swallowing as well as red and swollen tonsils. Lymph nodes in the front of the neck may also be swollen. Other common symptoms include a fever and tiny red spots on the roof of the mouth called petechiae. Some people may have headaches, nausea, stomach pain, or vomiting. However, not all people with strep throat have symptoms.
Who can get it
Strep throat is more common among children aged 5 to 15, but can affect people of all ages. It’s rare in children under 3 years of age. Adults who are parents of school-aged children or who are often in contact with children are more at risk for strep throat. You’re also at higher risk for strep throat if you have close contact with a person with strep throat as it's highly contagious.
Diagnosis for strep throat
Your healthcare provider can test if you have group A strep by doing a rapid strep test or throat culture. A rapid strep test looks for antigens, which are substances that cause your immune system to produce antibodies against it. The results can be ready in 10 to 20 minutes. However, the test may be negative even if strep is present, so a throat culture may be needed. A throat culture looks for Strep A bacteria. It’s more accurate but results take 24 to 48 hours.
For both tests, your healthcare provider will use a tongue depressor to hold down your tongue and then take a sample from the back of your throat and tonsils.
Treatments for strep throat
Healthcare providers treat strep throat with antibiotics. After taking antibiotics for 48 hours, you should start feeling better. There are also some treatments you can try out at home to help soothe your symptoms.
If the strep test is positive, antibiotics like amoxicillin and penicillin are prescribed. Other antibiotics may be tried if there is a penicillin allergy. The symptoms are often gone within a few days of taking antibiotics, but you should still finish the full course of antibiotics, otherwise the symptoms may return.
If you have strep throat, you should stay home until you no longer have a fever and have taken antibiotics for at least 24 hours.
It’s important to practice good hygiene to stop strep throat from spreading. This includes:
- Washing your hands often,
- Covering your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze, and
- Not sharing food, dishes, drinking glasses, or utensils and washing them in hot soapy water or in a dishwasher after each use.
There are some things you can do at home to help soothe your throat faster.
- Drink lots of fluids. Warm liquids like tea with honey can make your throat feel better. Sucking on ice pops can help too. Don’t drink acidic drinks like orange juice or lemonade as that will irritate the throat more.
- Eat soft foods that are easy to swallow like soup, mashed potatoes, and yogurt.
- Try an over-the-counter pain medication like acetaminophen, or ibuprofen.
- Over-the-counter throat lozenges or anesthetic throat spray can help soothe throat pain. Lozenges shouldn’t be given to young children because they might choke on them.
- A natural method of soothing a sore throat is gargling with warm salt water. Mix about 1 teaspoon of salt in 1 cup (240ml) of water.
- Use a humidifier or cool-mist vaporizer to add moisture to the air.
- Get lots of rest.
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Side effects of treatments
If left untreated, strep throat bacteria may spread to other parts of the body and lead to complications. These include:
- Scarlatina or scarlet fever is a red skin rash that feels like sandpaper. The rash fades in about 7 days and the skin may peel.
- A rare kidney disease called poststreptococcal glomerulonephritis may occur, which is the result of your body’s immune system trying to fight off the group A strep bacteria. Among its symptoms are dark reddish-brown urine and swelling in the face, hands, and feet.
- Small scaly teardrop-shaped spots that suddenly appear on the middle of the body and limbs called guttate psoriasis may occur. The spots may be itchy but aren’t contagious. Usually mild cases can be treated at home, but it may be severe in those with weakened immune systems.
- Pus can collect behind the tonsils. This is known as tonsillar abscess. This happens when the bacteria spreads to the surrounding tissues.
- Rheumatic fever is a rare complication that can cause severe illness in the heart, brain, joints, and skin. It typically develops about 14 to 28 days after strep throat and can result in permanent damage to the heart valves.
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Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Rheumatic Fever: All You Need to Know.”
Centers for Disease Control: “Scarlet Fever: All You Need to Know.”
Centers for Disease Control: “Strep Throat: All You Need to Know.”
Medline Plus: “Guttate psoriasis.”
Medline Plus: “Strep A Test.”
Medline Plus: “Strep throat.”
Merck Manuals: “Tonsillar Cellulitis and Tonsillar Abscess.”
National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases: “Group A Streptococcal Infections.”
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