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What Is Strep Throat?

Tricia Christensen
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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Strep throat is a common illness, especially in children. Its symptoms usually include a very sore throat, stomach pain in the lower abdomen, and high fever. The neck glands may also be swollen, and a person may feel ill, weak, and/or achy. The infection itself signifies the presence of large amounts of strep bacteria in the throat and needs to be treated with antibiotics in order to be cured.

Historical Perspective

Though common today and easily treated, strep throat was once one of the most devastating illnesses a person could get. It frequently progressed to either rheumatic or scarlet fever, which could cause lengthy illness, damage to the heart and even death. Until the discovery of antibiotics, the condition remained complicated and difficult to treat, and like pneumonia was indicated in a number of childhood deaths.

Causes of Strep Throat

Strep throat is caused by Streptococcus bacteria, the most common bacterial culprit behind sore throat infections. This illness is most common among children and adolescents, but adults can contract it as well. It's a bacterial infection and requires an antibiotic to treat it effectively.

Symptoms of Strep Throat

The symptoms of strep throat may vary depending on age but almost always include a sore throat. Many times, the throat pain is accompanied by fever and possibly headache, and small children may develop a rash as well. The rash looks like small, red bumps, usually located under the arms or elsewhere on the torso. A patient may also experience a stomach ache and swollen glands.

Diagnosis and Treatment

Anyone who has a sore throat accompanied by fever should see a healthcare professional. If this individual suspects strep throat, he or she will run a test by swabbing the back of the throat to confirm the presence of the bacteria. Usually, a strep test is a combination of a rapid test and a culture. A rapid strep test is not as conclusive as a laboratory culture, but medical professionals can often confirm strep in about 15 minutes and prescribe a course of antibiotics if necessary. They usually follow this test by sending the sample to a lab for confirmation by culture, which takes about 24 hours.

The presence of a persistent sore throat should be checked by a professional, as an infection that is left untreated can develop into rheumatic fever, a rare condition that can impact the joints and the heart. Penicillins, macrolides, and cephalosporins are common antibiotics prescribed to treat the illness. In rare cases, a medical professional may suggest removing the tonsils if it is suspected that they are harboring bacteria and causing recurrent infections.

People with this condition usually begin to feel better after a few days of treatment, but it's important to finish all antibiotics prescribed. Failing to finish the prescribed amount can cause the bacteria to reassert itself, resulting in symptoms emerging again. Occasionally, one form of antibiotic does not adequately kill strep. If symptoms disappear and then reappear a few days later, it's important to check with a physician about possibly changing to a different antibiotic medication.

Contagiousness and Prevention

Strep throat is most common among children and teens, and most contagious when the greatest number of symptoms present. A person with strep, even on antibiotic treatment can remain contagious for up to 21 days. Normally, the infected person, when not symptomatic, can protect others by not sharing food and observing good handwashing hygiene. Risk of contagion to others decreases sharply after a person's symptoms have disappeared and he or she has been on antibiotics for a couple of days.

For parents, strep in a child should mean keeping the child at home from daycare, preschool or regular school until a few days after antibiotic treatment has begun and symptoms have cleared. Continued presence of symptoms means greater likelihood of passing the illness to other children. Sometimes children will also have cold or viral symptoms concurrently with strep throat, which makes them more contagious to others. In general, following a doctor's advice on when a child should return to school is good practice.

The bacteria can be spread by coughing and sneezing, and also by contact with objects an infected person has touched. This is why the condition is so common among children.

Not all fevers and sore throats mean you or your child have strep throat. Lots of viral infections include sore throats and fevers. When this fever persists beyond a day or two, strep may be a possible cause. Fortunately, it has never been easier to diagnose this condition than it is today.

Not all sore throats are strep infections, but it is common. If the pain disappears shortly after waking or is relieved by drinking fluids, it may be a viral infection. Acetaminophen and ibuprofen can help relieve the pain and discomfort. If a sore throat is causing difficulty swallowing, resulting in drooling, or difficulty with breathing, medical attention should be sought immediately.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a The Health Board contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By anon271096 — On May 24, 2012

Its a good thing we have antibiotics or both my children and myself would have been dead by now, according to the old days. I have gotten it so severely that my entire mouth was full of blisters. -- Lola

By anon156337 — On Feb 26, 2011

If you have continuous strep you should see an ENT. Mine didn't go away until I had my tonsils out.

By pharmchick78 — On Sep 22, 2010

One thing that is important to watch out for with strep throat is a strep throat with a rash. Also called a strep rash, this can be a sign of scarlet fever, especially in young children.

If your young child has a strep throat with a rash, a very high fever, chills, and patchy white, yellow, or grey spots on their tonsils, you should take them to the doctor immediately.

Scarlet fever can have very serious effects, especially if it is not treated promptly -- the fever alone is a danger.

So although you shouldn't panic every time your child gets a sore throat, it is very important to be aware of the signs and symptoms of scarlet fever, and to be able to differentiate normal strep throat from the more serious scarlet fever.

By TunaLine — On Sep 22, 2010

Is the strep throat treatment for adults different from the strep throat treatment for children? And is strep throat contagious between children and adults?

My niece has a chronic strep throat, and I'd like to know if her strep throat complications could be passed on to me when I babysit her.

Does anybody know?

By CopperPipe — On Sep 22, 2010

When I was about 10 I got a very severe strep throat while staying with my grandmother. My parents were on vacation, so all I remember is being so miserable having to go to a strange doctor to see if I had strep throat or a tonsils problem, and I still remember it hurting so badly when they took the swab. To this day, I'm sure my grandmother remembers that strep throat infection -- and I know my parents were glad they missed out, I was a bear to take care of!

By Dooozy — On Aug 20, 2008

Has anyone else experienced constant strep throat for month or years where antibiotics don't work. In my case the culture would show Strep A and then Strep B and then Strep A again and the hospital would take a sensitivity test each time and a different antibiotic would work (in the lab) each time. Long story here and would love to hear from others who have experience this or have had loved ones who have.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a The Health Board contributor, Tricia...
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