Winter isn’t just mitten season. It’s also the prime time of the year for sore throats.
Most sore throats are caused by viruses and go away on their own. But when you have sudden and severe throat pain without a runny nose, cough or other upper-respiratory gunk, it may be strep throat. Even if you don’t have scorching symptoms, you could still be a carrier of the highly infectious illness.
While strep throat is typically a mild infection, it can turn into something worse if you don’t get treatment. Knowing the signs of strep throat can help you avoid serious complications, speed your recovery and keep those around from getting sick.
What is strep throat?
Strep throat is a common infection in the throat and tonsils caused by a bacteria known as A Streptococcus, or group A strep.
While anyone can get strep throat, it’s especially common in children between the ages of 5 and 15. The age group has an overall lower immunity to germs than older adolescents and adults and are also more likely to be in crowded settings where strep throat thrives, like schools and daycares.
Is strep throat contagious?
People who get strep throat are extremely contagious. The bacteria that cause strep are highly transmissible, which makes it easy to pass it around. That’s why strep throat is more common during winter months when people are more likely to be indoors in enclosed spaces.
Strep is most often spread through respiratory droplets and direct contact. You can get infected when you:
- Breathe in bacteria-filled droplets.
- Touch something that the droplets land on then touch your nose, mouth or eyes.
- Share personal items such as toothbrushes, drinking glasses and eating utensils, with someone who’s infected.
- Come in contact with fluid from skin sores infected with the bacteria that cause strep throat.
What are the symptoms of strep throat?
While strep throat is typically a mild condition, the infection can be painful.
It usually takes two to five days after exposure to become ill. The common symptoms of strep throat include:
- Throat pain usually comes on quickly.
- Fever, which is usually at its highest the second day of infection.
- Pain when swallowing.
- Red and swollen tonsils. You may also have white patches or spots or streaks of pus on your tonsils or throat.
- Tiny red spots on the roof of the mouth.
- Headache and body aches.
- Nausea or vomiting, especially in young children.
Some people with strep throat may not develop any symptoms. If you’ve been exposed to someone with strep throat but feel fine, you may still be infected – and pose a risk to others.
How is strep throat treated?
If you think you or a loved one might have strep throat, it’s important to see a health care provider for a prompt diagnosis and treatment.
A rapid antigen test can determine if strep throat is causing your symptoms. If the test is negative and your provider still suspects strep, he or she may do a throat culture.
Strep throat is highly treatable with oral antibiotics, such as penicillin, amoxicillin, cephalexin or azithromycin. If you test positive for strep and your health care provider prescribes antibiotics, it’s important to take medication to:
- Lessen the time you’re sick.
- Ease your symptoms.
- Prevent the spread of bacteria to others.
- Prevent serious complications.
With antibiotics, you should feel better within a couple of days, and your strep throat should go away within 7 to 10 days.
In the meantime, you can ease painful symptoms with these simple home remedies:
- Gargle with warm salt water.
- Drink plenty of water to lubricate the throat and help prevent dehydration.
- Take fever and pain relievers, such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), acetaminophen (Tylenol) or naproxen (Aleve).
- Eat soft foods that are easy to swallow.
- Use a humidifier to soothe swollen throat tissue.
- Avoid irritants, such as caffeine, spicy foods and tobacco smoke.
If you test positive for strep throat but don’t have symptoms, you may be a carrier and not need antibiotics.
Is strep throat dangerous?
Most people recover from strep throat without complications. But when untreated, the bacteria that cause strep throat can spread to other parts of the body. Potential complications may include:
- Abscesses (pockets of pus) around the tonsils or neck.
- Swollen lymph nodes in the neck.
- Middle ear infection.
- Sinus infection.
In rare instances, the unchecked spread of bacteria can cause more severe illness such as:
- Rheumatic fever, a disease that can affect the heart, joints, nervous system and skin.
- Scarlet fever, which is marked by a bright red, sandpaper-like rash that starts on the face and neck and spreads through the body.
- Inflammation of the kidneys, also known as nephritis.
- Toxic shock syndrome. This potentially life-threatening condition is caused when strep bacteria release toxins into the body.
How can I prevent getting strep throat?
Amid COVID, we learned a lot about how to stop the spread of infection. The best way to keep from getting or sharing strep throat is to wash your hands often, especially after coughing or sneezing and before preparing foods or eating.
You should also:
- Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze and properly dispose of used tissues. If you don’t have a tissue, cough or sneeze into your upper sleeve or elbow -- not your hand.
- Use an alcohol-based hand rub if soap and water are not readily available.
- Avoid sharing personal items, and always wash dishes in hot, soapy water or in a dishwasher.
Indigo offers fast and easy testing and treatment
If you’re worried your sore throat may be something more serious, a simple throat swab can determine if you have strep. All of our convenient Indigo Urgent Care locations offer onsite rapid strep testing, giving you results in minutes. If needed, your provider may prescribe antibiotics.
Get the care you need when you need it. Indigo is here for you from 8 am to 8 pm every day to treat most minor illnesses and injuries.
If you’re experiencing any of the following symptoms, seek treatment at your nearest emergency department:
- Difficulty swallowing
- Difficulty breathing
- Fever over 101o
- Joint pain
- A rash
- Bloody mucus
- A lump in your throat