A sore throat is something virtually everyone will experience, especially during winter. The colder months often cause a sore, dry, irritated and itchy throat, often due to the cold air or a virus. However, it is possible that your symptoms could be caused by a bacterial infection instead of the usual viral infection. This is known as strep throat.
Strep throat can lead to severe complications if left untreated, especially in younger children. It is important to know its symptoms and learn to differentiate between this and viral infection. Below is everything you need to know about identifying the signs and symptoms of strep throat.
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Strep throat is a bacterial infection in the throat and tonsils caused by a bacteria known as group A Streptococcus (group A strep), also known as Streptococcus pyogenes.
You can get strep throat by inhaling droplets containing the bacteria from an infected person. Infected people release small respiratory droplets by coughing or sneezing, and touching them and then touching your mouth or nose, or simply inhaling them, can get you ill.
Since strep throat is highly contagious, you can also get it from sharing a glass or spoon with an infected person. Additionally, if you touch infected sores caused by group A strep or come into contact with fluid from those sores, you can also get infected.
Strep throat can affect people of all ages, but it is most common among children from the age of 3 to 15 years.
After exposure to group A strep, it can take about two to five days for symptoms to present. The common signs and symptoms of strep throat to watch out for include:
Throat pain that appears very quickly
Pain while swallowing
Swollen lymph nodes
Nausea or vomiting, especially in younger children
Red spots on the soft or hard palate
Swollen & red tonsils with visible streaks of pus or white patches
It is important to note that you or your child could be experiencing these symptoms without necessarily being infected with strep throat. However, if the sore throat lasts for more than 48 hours or is accompanied by a scarlatiniform rash (scarlet fever), you likely have contracted strep throat. It is important to visit your doctor for testing and treatment.
While strep throat is a bacterial infection, most sore throats are caused by a viral infection and are identifiable through the following associated signs and symptoms:
Conjunctivitis, also known as pink eye.
Yes. Though not having tonsils may reduce your chances of getting strep throat, it does not mean you can’t catch strep throat. A lack of tonsils does, however, reduce the severity of the infection, meaning you don't experience full-blown symptoms.
When you visit your doctor complaining of a sore throat, they will start by analyzing your symptoms and performing a physical examination. If they suspect you have strep throat, they will also take a throat swab so that they can perform two additional tests:
This involves running a test on the swab to determine whether group A strep is causing the illness. The test comes back within 10-20 minutes and picks up the bacteria 70-80% of the time. A positive result indicates that you have strep throat, and your doctor will prescribe antibiotics to treat it.
In some cases, the rapid strep test may return a negative result, and the doctor might decide to perform a throat culture test to be sure. This is especially likely to happen with children since they are at higher risk of getting rheumatic fever if their strep throat infection is left untreated.¹
In a throat culture, the doctor places your swab sample in a special dish (culture) in the laboratory and allows it to grow. If the bacteria do not grow, you are less likely to have strep throat. If it grows, your test is positive, and the doctor will determine the best medication for your strep throat.
The throat culture test takes a few days before results can be determined, but it is more accurate than the rapid strep test.
If your strep throat tests are positive, your doctor will prescribe antibiotics. The most preferred antibiotics are penicillin or amoxicillin for people who are not allergic to them.
Treatment with the right antibiotic for 12 hours or longer eliminates a person’s risk of transmitting group A strep. Thus, a patient with strep throat should stay home until 12 hours after starting appropriate antibiotics and they are fever-free.
Strep throat is common among children between five to 15 years and can cause rheumatic fever when left untreated. The condition is caused by group A Streptococcus and is often transmitted through coughing, sneezing, or being in contact with fluids from sores caused by strep throat.
Strep throat exhibits symptoms such as a sudden onset of sore throat, pain when swallowing, and fever. To protect you and your family from strep throat, clean your hands with soap and water regularly, cover your mouth with a tissue while coughing or sneezing and then dispose of the tissue.
If you think you or a loved one has developed strep throat, see a doctor as soon as possible for diagnosis and treatment.
Streptococcal pharyngitis (2022)
Strep throat: All you need to know | Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Pharyngitis (Strep throat) | Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Conjunctivitis (Pink eye) | Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Streptococcal pharyngitis | Statopearls