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Strep Throat

What Is Strep Throat?

Strep throat is an infection caused by a type of bacteria (group A streptococcus). It's very common among teens. In fact, strep bacteria cause almost a third of all sore throats.

Strep throat usually requires a trip to the doctor and treatment with antibiotics. With the proper medical care — along with plenty of rest and fluids — you should be back on your feet in no time.

What Are the Signs & Symptoms of Strep Throat?

Most sore throats are caused by viruses. If you have a runny nose, cough, hoarseness, and red or runny eyes, it's probably a virus and will clear up on its own.

Strep throat is different. Signs that you may have strep throat include:

  • red and white patches in the throat
  • trouble swallowing
  • tender, swollen glands (lymph nodes) on the sides of your neck
  • red, big tonsils
  • headache
  • stomach pain
  • fever
  • feeling weak or sick
  • loss of appetite and nausea
  • rash

If you have any of these symptoms, it's definitely time to see your doctor.

illustration

Is Strep Throat Contagious?

Strep throat is very contagious. Anybody can get it, but most cases are in school-age kids and teens. 

How Do People Get Strep Throat?

Students tend to get strep throat most often during the school year, with peaks in winter and early spring, when big groups of people are close together.

The bacteria that cause strep throat tend to hang out in the nose and throat, so sneezing, coughing, or shaking hands can easily spread the strep infection from one person to another. That's why it's so important to wash your hands as often as possible.

How Is Strep Throat Diagnosed?

A doctor often can do a rapid strep test right in the office. They'll use a swab to take a sample of the fluids at the back of your throat. It usually only takes a few minutes to find out if you've got strep throat.

If the first test doesn't prove anything, then your doctor might do a longer test called a throat culture. The doctor will rub a swab of fluid from your throat on a special dish and the dish will be left to sit for 2 nights. If you have strep throat, streptococci bacteria will usually grow in the dish within 1–2 days.

How Is Strep Throat Treated?

If you have strep throat, your doctor will give you a prescription to take antibiotics for 10 days. These will probably be pills that you swallow.

You will begin to feel better about 24 hours after starting treatment. Even if you don't feel sick anymore, it's important to take the antibiotics for the full 10 days. If you don't finish all the antibiotics, you can be at risk for problems such as rheumatic fever, which can lead to heart damage.

Sometimes a doctor might choose to treat strep throat with one antibiotic shot, without prescribing any medicine for you to take at home.

Can Strep Throat Be Prevented?

To protect others from getting sick, it's important to stay home for at least 24 hours until the antibiotics have had a chance to work. Wash your forks, spoons, plates, and cups in hot, soapy water after you use them. Don't share food, drinks, napkins, handkerchiefs, or towels with other people.

Cover your mouth and nose when you sneeze or cough to prevent passing fluid droplets to someone else. If you don't have a tissue handy, make sure you cough or sneeze into your elbow — not your hands! Wash your hands often, especially after wiping or blowing your nose.

How Can I Feel Better?

Drink lots of cool liquids, such as water or ginger ale, especially if you have a fever, since you'll feel worse if you become dehydrated. Stay away from orange juice, lemonade, and other acidic drinks because they can sting your throat. Frozen foods such as ice cream or popsicles can help to numb throat soreness. Warm liquids like soups, tea with honey, or hot chocolate also can be soothing. For fever and pain, your doctor may suggest an over-the-counter medicine, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen. Follow the package directions on how much to take and when.

Reviewed by: Rachel S. Schare, MD
Date reviewed: April 2022