What is strep throat?
Strep throat is an infection in the throat and tonsils (glands in the back of the throat) that is caused by a bacterium known as Group A streptococcus. Strep throat spreads from person to person very easily, especially among family members. It is common in school-aged children but also occurs in adults.
Strep throat can very rarely cause more serious illnesses, such as rheumatic fever, a disease that can harm the heart valves. So, it's important that strep throat is appropriately diagnosed and treated. With proper treatment, strep throat is usually cured within 10 days.
Symptoms and Causes
What are the symptoms of strep throat?
The symptoms of strep throat include:
- Sudden sore throat
- Red tonsils that have white spots on them
- Pain when swallowing
- Swollen neck glands
- Loss of appetite
- Abdominal pain
How does strep throat spread?
Strep throat is spread by:
- Close contact with an infected person
- Sharing an infected person's personal items
Diagnosis and Tests
How do I know if my child has strep throat?
Visit your healthcare provider if the symptoms suggest strep throat. Your child will be examined and may be given a strep test (throat culture). Viral illnesses can have the same symptoms as strep throat. This is why it's important that a throat swab be done to confirm the presence of the Strep bacteria in the throat.
What is a strep test?
A strep test looks for Streptococcus bacteria in the throat. The test is painless and takes very little time. The tip of a cotton swab is used to wipe the back of the throat. The swab is then tested.
The rapid strep test takes approximately 20 minutes. If the test is positive (the Streptococcus bacteria is found), the patient has strep throat. If the test is negative (no signs of Streptococcus), the doctor may send the throat swab to a laboratory to double-check the results. Some doctors may not do a rapid strep test and instead just send the throat swab to the laboratory.
Management and Treatment
How is strep throat treated?
Strep throat is treated using antibiotics. An antibiotic is a type of medicine that kills the bacteria that cause the infection.
Antibiotics are often taken as pills or given as a shot. Penicillin and amoxicillin are common antibiotics used to treat strep throat. Other antibiotics are ordered for people who are allergic to penicillin.
Your healthcare provider may give your child a shot or prescribe an antibiotic in either pill or liquid form. The pills or liquid are usually taken for 10 days. Follow your healthcare provider's instructions. Your child should take all of the medication, even if he or she feels better. The bacteria can still be alive even if your child feels okay.
What can be done to relieve the pain of strep throat?
Your child should:
- Drink soothing liquids, such as warm tea.
- Take a pain reliever, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol®).
Aspirin should not be given to children. Aspirin can cause Reye's syndrome, a life-threatening illness, in children and adolescents who have fevers.
Other sore throats don't need special medicine, so why does strep throat?
Most sore throats are caused by viruses, which cannot be cured with medicine; you can only relieve the aches and pains. Viruses heal on their own and cannot be cured with antibiotics or other medicines.
Strep throat is caused by a bacterium. Infections caused by bacteria can be treated with antibiotics. Strep throat can lead to more serious illnesses, so it's important to get it treated.
Can I take antibiotics I already have in the house for strep throat?
You should never take medicines left over from an earlier illness or give a leftover medicine to your children. Leftover antibiotics can also make strep throat more difficult to treat and can cause serious side effects.
Outlook / Prognosis
How soon will the person who has strep throat feel better?
Your child should feel better within a day or two after treatment begins.
When can my child return to school after treatment for strep throat?
Your child can return to regular activities, including school attendance, 24 hours after receiving the shot or beginning the antibiotic, if his or her temperature is normal.
What if my child is not getting better after being treated for strep throat?
If your child is not getting better, let your healthcare provider know right away. Your child should not stop taking his or her medicine, unless your healthcare provider tells you to.
Call your healthcare provider if your child is not improving one to two days after starting the antibiotic. You should also call if your child has any of these symptoms:
- Fever one or two days after feeling better
- Nausea or vomiting
- Skin rash
- Swollen glands
- Painful joints
- Shortness of breath
- Dark urine, rash, or chest pain (may occur three to four weeks later)