What Is Strep Throat?

Strep throat is an infection of the throat that causes a painful sore throat – sometimes so painful that patients aren’t even able to swallow.

Unlike most sore throats, which are caused by viruses, strep throat is caused by bacteria – specifically, Group A streptococcus bacteria. In addition to having a very sore throat, with strep, the throat will probably be red, and may also have white patches on the tonsils. Strep infections can also cause swollen lymph nodes (small, bean-shaped glands that are part of the body’s immune system), a fever, and/or headache and sometimes a rash. Nausea, stomach pain and vomiting can also occur, but are more common in children infected with strep.

Strep is the most common bacterial throat infection. Though it can affect people of any age, strep throat occurs mostly in children between the ages of 5 and 15.

Strep is most common in the winter months, and is spread through direct contact with saliva or nasal secretions of an infected person. Symptoms can develop within 1 to 3 days.

Is it really strep?

To determine if a sore throat is strep throat, healthcare providers will most likely take a throat swab to check for the presence of the strep bacteria. This can be uncomfortable for the patient but is over quickly.

The “rapid strep test” to identify the strep bacteria only takes 10 to 20 minutes. If the test is positive, the patient has strep throat. If it is negative, a virus is likely causing the sore throat, and the doctor may recommend pain relievers and fluids.

Treating strep throat

If you, or your child, are diagnosed with strep throat, a healthcare provider will prescribe antibiotics to kill the strep bacteria. After 24 hours on an antibiotic, the patient will no longer be contagious, meaning they won’t pass the bacteria to someone else and can return to school or work.

Patients with strep throat must be sure to take the full course of any prescribed antibiotic, even if they feel better in a few days. This is especially important with strep throat in order to prevent it from returning, or to stop potentially-serious complications, such as rheumatic fever.

In addition to antibiotics, patients can use over-the-counter pain relievers to help relieve throat pain. Gargling with salt water may also help to lessen throat swelling and pain.

To keep strep from spreading, keep the dishes and drinking glasses of the person with strep throat separated from others, and wash them thoroughly in hot, soapy water. Anyone with strep throat should cover their mouth and nose when sneezing or coughing. After 24 hours on antibiotics, it is also recommended that people with strep throat switch to a new toothbrush to prevent re-infection.