Streptococcal pharyngitis, also called strep throat, is a bacterial infection of the throat and tonsils. Strep throat can occur in people of all ages but it is most common in children.
Strep throat is caused by bacteria called Group A Streptococcus, which live in the nose and throat and are highly contagious. Strep throat usually spreads through small airborne droplets when the infected person coughs or sneezes. Healthy people are infected by breathing in those droplets, touching something with the droplets on it, and then touching their own nose or mouth, or by sharing a glass or plate with an infected person.
Once exposed to the strep bacteria, it usually takes between two to five days for someone to become ill. However, some infected people do not develop symptoms or seem sick, while others may display the common signs of strep but don’t actually have it. Some of the common signs and symptoms include:
- Sore throat that starts quickly
- Pain when swallowing
- Red and swollen tonsils, sometimes with white patches
- Small red spots on the roof of the mouth
- Swollen/tender lymph nodes in the neck
- Headache or fatigue
- Nausea or vomiting (in children)
It is important to note that having a cough, hoarseness, nasal congestion, or runny nose makes it much less likely that a sore throat is due to strep.
The only way to determine if someone with strep symptoms actually has strep throat is a rapid strep test or throat culture. Doctors usually swab the throat and then test the swab to see if it comes back positive. Once it is determined that someone has strep, they are treated with antibiotics, typically penicillin or amoxicillin. People with strep should start to feel better within 48 hours of starting antibiotics, however symptoms may take three to five days to completely resolve. As well as helping shorten the duration of symptoms, antibiotics are necessary because they prevent potentially serious complications of strep.
The best way to prevent spreading or getting strep is proper handwashing, covering your mouth when you sneeze or cough, not sharing personal items like drinking glasses or utensils, and teaching children to do the same. If you or your child has strep you should stay home from work/school/daycare for at least 24 hours after starting antibiotics to avoid spreading it to others.