A sore throat is often one of the first symptoms of a cold or the flu. But persistent pain and inflammation can also be the result of a bacterial infection known as strep throat.
What is Strep Throat?
Strep throat is caused by a bacterial known as streptococcus pyogenes. It’s also called group A streptococcus. It is an infection that is most common in children, but can also affect adults. Strep infection is transmitted through personal contact, often after being exposed to the respiratory droplets from an infected person who has sneezed or coughed – or who has contaminated an item or surface like a cup, desk or cell phone.
The symptoms commonly found in strep throat include:
- A sudden fever, often 101oF or higher
- Pain when swallowing
- Red, swollen tonsils
- White patches or pus in throat
- Tiny red spots in the mouth
- Swollen lymph nodes
Other symptoms include stomach pain, vomiting and nausea. Some individuals may also have a rash, known as scarlet fever, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
How is Strep Throat Diagnosed?
Once you or a loved one has the symptoms of strep throat, it’s likely time to see your doctor or visit an urgent care center. A sore throat can be caused by many different viruses or bacteria, so a doctor needs to distinguish between what could be a virus and the more contagious strep bacteria.
Because strep throat can’t be diagnosed only on visual inspection, a rapid strep test may be performed to identify whether a group A strep bacteria is the culprit. The rapid strep test is performed by swabbing the throat with a cotton swab. The swab is then exposed to a reagent that will indicate whether a group A strep bacteria is present. If it’s positive, then most likely an antibiotic will be prescribed.
If the rapid strep test is inconclusive or is negative and the doctor still thinks it might be strep throat, then a throat culture will be done. A throat culture is performed by swabbing the throat and placing the mucus collected in a petri dish that has special nutrients that allow the bacteria to grow. Once it is visible, the bacteria is placed on a slide and viewed under a microscope for a definitive diagnosis.
Treating Strep Throat
Once the doctor knows for certain that your sore throat is caused by the streptococcus bacteria, an antibiotic like penicillin or amoxicillin will be prescribed for those not allergic to penicillin. Other antibiotics can be used as well for those individuals with a penicillin allergy or sensitivity.
Antibiotics help prevent the spread of the strep infection to others and decreases the chance of dangerous complications like rheumatic fever or a kidney infection.
Over-the-counter medications like ibuprofen (Motrin® or Advil®) can help reduce fever and pain. Other ways to relieve the painful symptoms of strep throat:
- Get plenty of rest
- Stay hydrated
- Use a humidifier
- Gargle with warm salt water
- Take prescription antibiotics as prescribed
Symptoms typically get better after a day or two on antibiotics but strep throat rarely lasts more than a week. Left untreated, strep throat can lead to complications such as poststreptococcal glomerulonephritis, a kidney infection, and rheumatic fever, which affects the heart and joints.
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Centers for Disease Control and Prevention