Almost every child will experience a sore throat once in a while. If your child is currently experiencing a painful throat or tonsils, you may wonder if they’re coming down with a cold or if their symptoms stem from allergies, a virus, or something else.
If your child isn't feeling well, you're in the right place. Keep reading to learn more about strep throat, its signs and symptoms, and how it's treated. Soon, you'll have all the answers you need to help your child feel better as quickly as possible.
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Usually, sore throats in children are caused by viruses; however, in the case of strep, a sore throat is caused by a type of bacteria called group A streptococcus (group A strep). Group A strep bacteria live within the nose and throat. They're easily passed from one person to another through small respiratory droplets that disperse through the air when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or speaks.
Children can catch strep by inhaling the droplets from a nearby infected person, drinking from the person’s cup or sharing utensils, or touching items with respiratory droplets on them and then touching their mouth or nose.
Children who catch strep throat usually develop symptoms within two to five days after exposure.
Initially, it can be challenging to determine if your child's sore throat is caused by strep or something else, like a cold. Aside from a sore throat, symptoms of strep throat include:
Red, swollen tonsils
Red spots on the roof of the mouth
Swollen lymph nodes in the neck
Stomach issues (including discomfort, nausea, and vomiting)
In some cases, children with strep develop a rash from scarlet fever.¹ Scarlet fever is caused by the same bacteria that cause strep throat. The characteristic rash of scarlet fever can appear alongside initial symptoms of strep, but it can also show up before or up to seven days later.
Signs your child’s sore throat is caused by something other than strep include a cough, runny nose, or pink eye.
Having a fever is a good indication that your child’s sore throat may be caused by strep. However, a high fever in the absence of other strep symptoms doesn't necessarily mean they have strep throat.
If your child has a fever, regardless of whether you think they have strep throat or something else, contact your child’s doctor. Seek urgent care if your child is:
Less than three months old with a rectal temperature of 100.4°F (or higher)
Between three and twelve months old with a fever of 102.2°F (or higher)
Twelve to twenty-four months old with a fever lasting more than 48 hours
Any age with a fever over 105°F that doesn’t respond to treatment and causes discomfort
Children who attend daycare or school with other children are more likely to get sick from contagious illnesses like strep throat.
While it’s difficult to evade respiratory droplets and impossible to eliminate the risk entirely, you can effectively reduce your child’s risk of catching strep throat by teaching them proper handwashing techniques.
If you suspect your child has strep throat, you may wonder if they need treatment.
Strep throat can resolve without treatment. However, doctors usually recommend antibiotics to relieve symptoms, help the child feel better sooner, reduce contagiousness, and prevent complications.
Left untreated, strep throat can develop into a more severe illness such as rheumatic fever, pneumonia, or meningitis. Rheumatic fever² can lead to a serious heart condition called rheumatic heart disease, which weakens the heart’s valves.
So, while strep throat may go away on its own, it’s essential to seek treatment if you suspect your child has it.
Your child will need a course of antibiotics if diagnosed with strep throat. Strep can resolve on its own, but it can lead to complications if left untreated.
If your child is exceptionally uncomfortable, ask your doctor which over-the-counter pain medications (if any) are suitable for your child to take along with the antibiotics. Additionally, make sure your child stays well-hydrated and well-rested.
Your family doctor or pediatrician will carry out a physical exam to evaluate the signs and symptoms of your child’s illness. If your doctor suspects your child has strep, they'll likely perform a rapid antigen test.
The test is fairly quick (results are available within 20 minutes) and is accomplished by swabbing the back of the throat.
If the rapid test produces a negative result, but your doctor still suspects your child may have strep, they may perform a throat culture test, where the swabbed sample is sent to a lab. Results from a throat culture usually take a day or two to come back.
The good news is that your child should recover fairly quickly from strep if they receive a diagnosis and the proper medication.
If your child is diagnosed with strep but is recovering with treatment, you may be wondering when they'll be ready to return to school.
In terms of limiting spread, you should keep your child out of school or daycare until their fever breaks and they’ve been taking antibiotics for at least 12 hours. But, of course, when your child will be ready to return to school also depends on how well they cope with their symptoms.
If you took your child to the doctor and had them tested for strep, but their test results were negative, does this mean you should still ask for antibiotics to help them recover from a sore throat? Generally, no.
It's not a good idea to treat an illness with antibiotics if you can’t confirm it’s caused by bacteria. Most sore throats in children are caused by viruses and, with time, will improve on their own.
It's challenging when your child isn't feeling well, and you're unsure if they need to see a doctor. If your child has several symptoms of strep throat or a fever, schedule an appointment with their doctor. Getting the right treatment will help your child recover as quickly as possible.
Scarlet fever: All you need to know | Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Rheumatic fever: All you need to know | Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Strep throat: All you need to know | Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
When your baby or infant has a fever | Mount Sinai
When and how to wash your hands | Centers for Disease Control and Prevention