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What You Need to Know About Strep Throat

Strep throat is a contagious infection caused by bacteria called Group A Streptococcus.

These bacteria can cause infections ranging from mild skin infections such as impetigo to rheumatic fever, toxic shock syndrome, and necrotizing fasciitis. Strep throat and mild skin infections are the most common forms of illness caused by these bacteria.

Strep bacteria pass from one person to another through nose and throat fluids when an infected person coughs or sneezes or touches another person or object with a hand contaminated by these fluids. It takes two to seven days for symptoms to appear after someone has been exposed.

Range of symptoms

These are common symptoms of strep throat:

  • Sore throat and pain when swallowing

  • A red throat that's swollen and may be dotted with white or yellow pus

  • Swollen neck glands (lymph nodes)

  • Low to high fever, depending on age, possibly with chills

  • Headache and body aches, and occasionally abdominal pain in younger children

  • Loss of appetite, nausea, and vomiting

Symptoms often appear suddenly, with a cough or cold symptoms.

What to do

If you have symptoms of strep, see your health care provider for a diagnosis. If your provider suspects a strep infection, you will probably be given a rapid strep test, which involves taking a sample of throat secretions with a cotton swab. If the test is positive, it's a strep infection. If the test is negative, the sample is sent to a lab for a throat culture. This means trying to grow any bacteria in the sample to see if strep is present.

If the rapid strep test or the throat culture confirms strep, your health care provider will prescribe a course of penicillin or another antibiotic. Group A strep is the main bacteria to cause sore throat and the only type that needs antibiotic treatment. Within one to four days of beginning antibiotics, your symptoms should improve. You aren't considered contagious after you have been on antibiotics for 24 hours, but you must complete the entire course of medication to help prevent complications such as rheumatic fever. Take all your medication even if you feel better within a few days.

Follow these steps to prevent spreading the bacteria and infecting people:

  • Don't share utensils, dishes, drinking glasses, food, drinks, napkins, handkerchiefs, or towels.

  • Prevent the spread of fluid droplets from sneezing or coughing by covering your mouth and nose.

  • Wash hands frequently.

Strep infections that are left untreated or not treated completely can lead to rheumatic fever, an illness that can damage heart valves, and also may cause glomerulonephritis, a serious kidney disorder.

Easing symptoms

These steps can help you feel better, but they aren't a replacement for antibiotics:

  • Take acetaminophen or ibuprofen as needed for fever and body aches.

  • Gargle with saltwater.

  • Eat soft foods, such as ice cream, milkshakes, soup, and decaffeinated tea with honey.

  • Drink plenty of liquids.

  • Rest in bed.

  • Run a cool-mist humidifier to add moisture to the air.

  • Place a warm, moist towel around the throat.

The fever that accompanies strep usually stops three to five days after you start taking antibiotics. The sore throat passes soon after that.

Talk to your health care provider if you have questions about strep throat.