CareNow® - March 04, 2020

Anyone who has ever experienced strep throat knows just how painful the infection can be.

Although strep throat is most common in children, people of any age can contract the bacterial infection, which results in a sore and scratchy throat.

It’s important that strep throat is treated in a timely manner before it leads to complications like kidney inflammation or rheumatic fever.

To determine if you or your child has strep throat, educating yourself on the signs of infection and differentiation between a sore throat and strep throat is key.

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What is the first sign of strep throat?

If you’re suffering from strep throat, you will notice pain that comes on quickly, specifically when swallowing.

It’s common to see white patches or streaks of pus on the tonsils, which may appear red and swollen, and tiny red spots covering the roof of the mouth.

In addition to a sore throat, you may also have a fever, headache, rash, body aches, nausea, vomiting and swollen, tender lymph nodes.

What to do if you think you have strep throat

Because strep throat is so contagious—and painful—it’s best to see a provider as soon as possible.

A provider will conduct a physical exam to identify any signs and symptoms of strep throat. Expect to have either a rapid antigen test or a throat culture to confirm the diagnosis.

For both tests, the provider uses a swab to collect a sample from the back of your throat.

  • The rapid antigen test detects the presence of a specific antigen, and the results are available in minutes. If the test is negative but the provider thinks you have strep, a throat culture can be performed.
  • A throat culture detects the presence of bacteria called group A Streptococcus. This sample is sent to a lab and is available in a couple of days.

How do you know if you have strep throat?

If you’ve woken up with an itchy, inflamed and irritated throat before, you’ve probably wondered whether you were suffering from a sore throat or something more serious, like strep throat.

Because the signs and symptoms are similar, it can be difficult to determine what you’re dealing with; however, there are some key indicators that can help.

Symptoms of a sore throat include:

  • A swollen and scratchy throat
  • Moderate fever
  • Earache
  • Runny nose
  • Cough
  • Congestion
  • Trouble breathing

With strep throat, you’ll most likely notice:

  • White patches on the tonsils
  • Red and swollen tonsils
  • Small red spots on the roof of the mouth
  • The absence of coughing and cold symptoms

Can strep throat go away on its own?

While it is possible for strep throat to go away on its own without antibiotics—within three to seven days—it’s advisable to treat it quickly to avoid complications and unnecessary pain.

When antibiotics are taken within 48 hours of infection, the duration and severity of symptoms can be reduced.

Untreated, strep throat can cause infection in the tonsils, sinuses, middle ear, skin and blood. Additional complications can include pneumonia, meningitis, rheumatic fever and inflammation of the kidneys.

If your child is taking antibiotics for strep throat, you should see improvement within 48 hours. If there is no improvement, let a medical professional know.

How long is strep throat contagious?

The first symptoms of strep throat occur within two to five days, and without proper treatment, it’s possible to be contagious for as long as a month.

Antibiotics can prevent the infection from spreading, and you can stop being contagious within 24 hours of beginning treatment.

Can a cold turn into strep throat?

Although a cold will usually go away on its own, it is possible for a cold to develop into strep throat.

Typically, young children, older adults and those with weakened immune systems are most likely to experience complications from a cold.

If your cold has lasted more than 10 days or if your symptoms continue to get worse, it’s possible you’ve developed a secondary infection (such as strep throat) and should see a provider.

How to reduce your risk of strep throat

To prevent getting strep throat, take these preventive measures:

  • Wash your hands regularly with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds—especially after coughing or sneezing.
  • If soap and water aren’t available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
  • Cover your mouth and nose anytime you cough or sneeze using the inside of your elbow or a tissue.
  • Glasses, utensils and plates that have been used by someone who’s sick should be washed thoroughly before used by anyone else.

If you do contract strep throat, avoid returning to work or school until you no longer have a fever and have been on antibiotics for at least 24 hours.

If you think you have symptoms of strep throat, seek medical attention as soon as possible

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Disclaimer: Patients’ health can vary. Always consult with a medical professional before taking medication, making health-related decisions or deciding if medical advice is right for you.