Strep throat is a contagious disease (meaning that you catch it from another person). It is caused by infection with group A streptococci (pronounced: strep-toe-kah-kye) bacteria, and it's very common among teens. In fact, strep bacteria cause almost a third of all sore throats. The symptoms of strep throat include sore throat, fever and stomach pain, along with red and swollen tonsils.
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.
How Do People Get It?
Students tend to get strep throat most often during the school year 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.
Is It Strep Throat or Just a Sore 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
- stomach pain
- feeling weak or sick
- loss of appetite and nausea
If you have any of these symptoms, it's definitely time to see your doctor.
What Do Doctors Do?
A doctor can often do a rapid strep test right in the office. He or she will 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.
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 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 are at risk for developing rheumatic fever, which can lead to permanent 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.
Keeping Strep to Yourself
To prevent getting other people 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 frequently, especially after wiping or blowing your nose.
What Can I Do to 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.
Ask your doctor before using throat drops or over-the-counter throat sprays because these may make a strep infection feel worse.
Reviewed by: Elana P. Ben Joseph, MD
Date reviewed: October 2011