Understanding Strep Throat

Respiratory infections like RSV, COVID-19, and the flu are in the headlines right now. But there are other causes of some common symptoms of respiratory infections. Strep throat is one.

Strep throat is a respiratory infection of the upper respiratory tract, but it is not caused by a virus. Unlike COVID-19, RSV, and the flu, strep throat is a bacterial infection. It is caused by a group of bacteria called group A Streptococcus. One of the big differences between a bacterial infection and a virus is that antibiotics can help cure bacterial infections. They do not help with viruses. 

How can you catch strep throat?

Like the more common respiratory viruses, strep throat is contagious. People catch it from other people who are sick. Respiratory droplets are the culprit, just as with most viruses. These droplets are spread when people cough, talk, or sneeze — although coughing and sneezing are not common with strep throat. This means that washing hands and cleaning surfaces can help avoid the spread of the disease. 

Sharing cups and dishes can also spread strep throat. Avoid this kind of sharing.

If you have strep throat, stay home and out of contact with other people. A simple test in your doctor’s office can determine whether you have strep throat or not. The most noticeable symptom of strep throat is a very painful sore throat, so you should see your doctor as soon as possible if you suspect you might have the disease. 

People usually get symptoms of strep throat two to five days after exposure. This means that people can be contagious before they realize they have strep. 

Regular handwashing and surface cleaning can help reduce contagious diseases in general and strep throat in particular. However, it is very contagious and may not be completely avoidable. 

Symptoms of strep throat

Sore throat is the most common symptom. Painful swallowing is also common. You might also experience a fever, headache, nausea, stomach pain, or vomiting. Coughing, a runny nose, and sneezing are not common symptoms. If you have coughing or sneezing, you are more likely to have a virus. 

Hoarseness is also more likely to be a sign of a virus than of strep throat. 

Children get strep throat more often than adults. Among adults, people who are in frequent contact with children, including parents of school-age kids and people working in group settings with children (such as schools and daycare centers) are most likely to end up with strep throat. 

Complications of strep throat

Strep throat is painful but is usually easily controlled with antibiotics. This is why it is so important to see your doctor for a test if you suspect that you may have strep throat. 

Untreated strep throat can lead to serious complications, including rheumatic fever and kidney inflammation. Rheumatic fever can affect the heart, brain, joints, and other organs. Post-streptococcal glomerulonephritis is a kidney disease that can be seen following strep throat.

Fortunately, a throat swab will quickly show whether you have strep throat or not. 

Treatment of strep throat

The most common treatment for strep throat is antibiotics. Oral antibiotics started within 48 hours of the first sign of symptoms will reduce the symptoms, help you feel better, and make you less contagious. They also reduce the chances of complications. 

It is important to follow your doctor’s instructions for taking antibiotics. Don’t stop taking them if you begin to feel better. In fact, you should expect to feel better within about 48 hours. At that point, you can go back to work or school if you no longer have symptoms.

Over-the-counter pain medications such as acetaminophen can help with the pain of strep throat. Getting plenty of rest and fluids is also important.  

A person who is a carrier — that is, they test positive for strep throat but do not have symptoms — may not need antibiotics. Carriers are less likely to spread the infection than people who have active symptoms. However, if there is a family history of rheumatic fever, your doctor may choose to treat the carrier. Once again, it’s important to follow the instructions for use of medication strictly. 

If you think you might have strep throat, make an appointment with your doctor as soon as possible.