During the winter season, as more and more people congregate indoors, the spread of illnesses such as the flu and strep throat become increasingly common, affecting both children and adults. It leads many to ask the question, “Is strep airborne?”
Indeed, strep throat can be very painful and uncomfortable, making it difficult for a person to speak and eat. Is it possible to avoid getting strep throat? If so, what are some things you can do to protect yourself?
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When you develop a strep throat infection, the cause is the Streptococcus pyogenes bacteria.¹ The throat swab test for the streptococcus bacteria will look for group A streptococcus.
Regardless of the type of streptococcus bacteria involved and how the infection is spread, the symptoms are similar.
Streptococcus bacteria is a pathogen that can spread from an infected individual to others near them in various ways, including airborne transmission through coughs, sneezing, and even talking. The bacteria can also spread by sharing drinks, food, and utensils or through contact with infected objects and surfaces.
Due to its ability to spread through airborne droplets and infected surfaces, strep throat is considered highly contagious and transmissible.
Therefore, it is not uncommon for a strep outbreak to affect a large portion of the exposed individuals, particularly in school, work, and healthcare settings, where many people are close to one another for extended periods.
While anyone can become infected with group A streptococcus infection, the infections are most commonly spread and carry the highest risk of complications in the children and elderly populations.
Studies² indicate that group A strep affects over 18 million people globally each year and causes approximately 500,000 deaths due to infection.
Strep throat symptoms can often resemble the symptoms of many other upper respiratory infections and conditions. To know whether you have group A strep, a doctor will perform a swab test to test for the presence of the bacteria in the throat.
If you know you have been exposed to strep, this is helpful information to provide for your doctor as they evaluate your symptoms.
Common symptoms of a group A streptococcus infection can include:
Throat pain and soreness
Pain and discomfort when swallowing
Redness and inflammation of the tonsils and throat area
Swelling of lymph nodes
Nausea and/or stomach pain
It can be challenging to avoid becoming infected with strep throat because, in many instances, the infected person can spread the bacteria before they know they are sick. Additionally, once a person has strep throat, they can be contagious for many weeks if they do not seek treatment.
The best defense against a strep throat infection is to practice frequent handwashing and avoid sharing food, utensils, and drinks. Furthermore, if you, unfortunately, become infected with strep throat, taking action quickly and seeking treatment from your provider is the best way to curb the spread and protect others around you from also becoming infected.
So long as you have symptoms of strep throat, you will likely remain contagious. However, once you begin antibiotic treatment, you will no longer be contagious to others after your fever resolves and taking antibiotics for at least 12 hours.
While you might suspect you have a strep throat infection because of your throat-related symptoms or you know someone you were around who had recently been diagnosed with strep, you should see your doctor as soon as possible.
A doctor can only confirm a group A strep throat infection through lab testing. If the throat swab test results indicate you have group A strep, your doctor will likely treat you with oral antibiotics.
Getting treatment for strep throat will help you feel better sooner and shorten the time you are contagious, which in turn will work to prevent infection in others near you.
Additionally, in some instances, an untreated strep infection could develop into more severe health risks and complications, leading to heart and kidney problems.
When you seek treatment as soon as possible, it can help reduce the risk of strep-related conditions that could cause damage or life-threatening complications.
In most cases, a strep throat infection resolves and does not leave any lasting impacts on an individual. However, group A streptococcus bacteria may result in life-threatening illnesses in some individuals, so any strep throat infection should be addressed as quickly as possible.
The longer a strep infection continues without treatment, the more time the bacteria have to impact your health and possibly develop into more serious conditions as time passes.
Untreated strep throat infections can lead to complications such as:
Strep throat is a common illness, particularly in school-aged children during the winter and spring seasons in the U.S.
Strep throat is not usually a cause for serious concern. It is a common condition that can be successfully treated with antibiotics.
A quick visit to your doctor or closest urgent care center can help determine whether your symptoms are related to a group A streptococcus infection and what you can do about it.
The sooner you seek evaluation and treatment, the sooner you can begin to feel better and help stop the bacteria from spreading to others you may come in contact with while sick. Taking simple and proactive steps like washing your hands can help you lessen your chance of getting a strep throat infection.
Streptococcus pyogenes (2022)
Streptococcal infections (2021)
Strep throat: All you need to know | Centers for Disease Control and Prevention