What is strep throat?
Strep throat is a bacterial infection in the throat and the tonsils. The throat gets irritated and inflamed, causing a sudden, severe sore throat.
Strep throat is caused by streptococcal (strep) bacteria. There are many different types of strep bacteria. Some cause more serious illness than others.
Although some people are quick to think that any painful sore throat is strep, sore throats are caused by a viral infection and not strep bacteria. A sore throat caused by a virus can be just as painful as strep throat. But if you have cold symptoms such as coughing, sneezing, or a runny or stuffy nose, you probably do not have strep throat.
What are the symptoms?
The most common symptoms of strep throat are:
- A sudden, severe sore throat.
- Pain when you swallow.
- Fever over 101°F (38.3°C).
- Swollen tonsils and lymph nodes.
- White or yellow spots on the back of a bright red throat.
You may also have a headache and belly pain. Less common symptoms are a red skin rash, vomiting, not feeling hungry, and body aches.
Strep throat can be passed from person to person. When a person who has strep throat breathes, coughs, or sneezes, tiny droplets with the strep bacteria go into the air. These droplets can be breathed in by other people. If you come into contact with strep, it will take 2 to 5 days before you start to have symptoms.
How is strep throat diagnosed?
Your doctor will do a physical exam, ask you about your symptoms and past health, and do a rapid strep test to diagnose strep throat. Sometimes another test, called a throat culture, is also needed.
If the rapid strep test says that you don't have strep (the test is negative) but your symptoms suggest that you do, your doctor may want to do a throat culture to be sure. This is because rapid strep tests are not always accurate. To do a throat culture, the doctor will swab a sample of cells from the back of your throat. The sample will go into a special cup (culture) where the strep bacteria can grow over time. If strep bacteria grow, the doctor knows that you have strep.
If the rapid strep test is positive and says that you do have strep, there’s no need to do the throat culture.
How is it treated?
Doctors treat strep throat with antibiotics. Antibiotics shorten the time you are able to spread the disease to others (are contagious) and lower the risk of spreading the infection to other parts of your body. Antibiotics also may help you feel better faster.
You are contagious while you still have symptoms. Most people stop being contagious 24 hours after they start antibiotics. If you don't take antibiotics, you may be contagious for 2 to 3 weeks, even if your symptoms go away.