A virus is usually to blame for a sore throat, but certain bacteria can cause a condition called strep throat. Group A streptococcus bacteria can grow in the nose and throat and cause an infection, mainly affecting the throat and tonsils. It typically takes two to five days from exposure to start feeling sick, and a person can spread the bacteria to others.
Left untreated, strep throat can lead to potentially serious complications. Knowing how to prevent strep throat can reduce your risk of illness, keeping you and your family healthy year-round.
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When someone with strep throat sneezes or coughs, they spread respiratory droplets containing the bacteria through the air. You can get sick if you:
Breathe in respiratory droplets from an infected person
Touch a surface that has droplets on it, and then touch your eyes, nose, or mouth
Eat from the same plate or drink from the same glass as an infected person
Share utensils, straws, a toothbrush, or other personal items with someone who has strep
Come in contact with fluid from the sores caused by group A strep (impetigo)
Kiss a person who has strep throat
Because it’s contagious, the most effective techniques for preventing strep throat are those aimed at reducing the spread. You can reduce the spread of strep throat by:
Strep bacteria can spread through shared objects and surfaces. You can protect yourself by:
Practicing proper handwashing techniques, and washing your hands often, is the best way to reduce the spread of strep bacteria. Wash your hands before preparing meals, before and after eating, after direct contact with someone who has strep, and after touching shared surfaces. Use water and soap and scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds — that’s about the amount of time it takes to hum “Happy Birthday” twice.
In situations where washing your hands is not possible or practical, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
If you’re living with someone who has strep or in a setting where the risk is high (such as a school or daycare), wash surfaces and objects frequently. You should thoroughly wash dishes and utensils after someone sick uses them. Once they’re washed, they’re safe for others to use.
Always cover your mouth with a tissue when you sneeze or cough. If you don't have a tissue, sneeze or cough into your elbow or upper sleeve, not your hand. Properly dispose of used tissues.
Since strep throat is contagious and easily spread, avoid close contact with someone who appears, sounds, or expresses that they’re sick.
Strep is not the only cause of sore throats. A viral infection will usually get better without medical treatment. The CDC reports that three in ten children with a sore throat are diagnosed with strep throat, and the proportion is even lower in adults — one in ten. Although anyone can get strep throat, it is more common in children between five and 15 years old.
If your sore throat is accompanied by a cough, runny nose, hoarseness, or signs of pink eye (conjunctivitis), it’s likely caused by a virus and not linked to strep.
Your doctor will perform a simple test to determine if your symptoms are caused by strep throat. If the rapid test is negative, they may order a throat culture swab to confirm.
Common symptoms of strep throat include:
Rapid onset of sore throat
Swollen, red tonsils that can have streaks of pus or white patches
Small red spots on the roof of the mouth
Swollen or painful lymph nodes in the neck
Your doctor will test for strep and prescribe antibiotics if necessary. However, there are steps you can take at home to improve your symptoms:
Restrict your diet: Limit foods that are difficult to swallow until the pain subsides. Avoid acidic foods and beverages (such as orange juice) and limit carbonated drinks (including soda), which may further irritate your throat.
Stay hydrated: Drink warm beverages to soothe your throat, and be sure to drink plenty of fluids.
Avoid irritants: Stop smoking and avoid secondhand smoke, paint fumes, cleaning products, and other irritants.
Take over-the-counter medication: Speak with your healthcare provider about taking ibuprofen or acetaminophen to reduce your fever and discomfort. Note that some medications aren’t suitable for children.
Gargle salt water: Mix half a teaspoon of salt into a cup of warm water, gargle, and spit it out.
Use honey: Add two tablespoons of honey to a cup of warm water and tea and drink it several times per day.
Drink tea: Opt for caffeine-free herbal teas.
Use a humidifier: Adding moisture to the air can help keep your sinuses open and reduce throat soreness.
Strep throat is treated with antibiotics. While strep can go away on its own, taking antibiotics such as penicillin or amoxicillin will:
Prevent complications, such as rheumatic fever
Decrease the length of time you are sick
Alleviate strep throat symptoms
Reduce the spread
Always take antibiotics as prescribed by your doctor, and do not stop taking the medication just because your symptoms improve or resolve. If you have a sore throat but test negative for strep, your doctor may prescribe other medications.
Strep throat is very contagious, so if diagnosed, you should stay home from school or work until you have taken antibiotics for at least 12 hours and no longer have a fever.
Contact your healthcare provider if strep throat symptoms do not improve within 24 to 48 hours of starting medical treatment. If you can’t eat or drink, you could become dehydrated and need to go to the hospital for IV therapy. Other symptoms that should prompt a visit to the ER include:
Not urinating for six hours or more
Feeling lethargic, having no energy, and struggling to wake up
Fever of 104ºF or above
Fever over 102ºF that has lasted for two days
Severe headache or stiff neck
Painful stomach ache with diarrhea or vomiting
Strep throat is a bacterial infection caused by group A streptococcus bacteria. It is highly contagious and spreads through the air and contaminated surfaces. Antibiotics help to eliminate symptoms and reduce the risk of infecting others.
Getting plenty of rest, staying hydrated, and taking medications as prescribed will help fight the bacteria and help you start feeling better.