What Is Strep Throat?

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Strep throat is an infection caused by group A Streptococcus bacteria (Streptococcus pyogenes). It causes a sore throat and a fever. The infection is very easy to spread (contagious). Strep throat is common in children but anyone can catch it.

There are a few tests that doctors can use to diagnose strep throat. Sometimes, providers can tell if a person has strep throat based on the signs and symptoms they have, such as throat swelling, a swollen uvula, or swollen tonsils.

A case of strep throat can be treated with a prescription for antibiotics. Medications and home remedies can also help people cope with the symptoms until the infection is cleared. While it's not common, strep throat can cause serious complications.

This article will talk about what strep throat is and how you catch it. You will also learn about how your doctor can tell if you have strep throat and what treatments you might need. There are also some steps that you can take to prevent strep throat.

What Strep Throat Looks Like
Verywell / Emily Roberts

Strep Throat Symptoms

If you catch strep throat, you will usually start feeling sick two to five days after you are exposed to the bacteria that causes the infection. There are several symptoms of strep throat, but the most common is a very sore throat.

Other symptoms of strep throat are:

  • Difficulty swallowing or pain when swallowing (which might also be felt in the ear on the same side)
  • Fever (101° F or higher)
  • Red, swollen tonsils that may have white patches or streaks of pus on them
  • Tiny red spots on the roof of the mouth (called petechiae)
  • Swollen lymph nodes in the front of the neck
  • Chills
  • Fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Loss of appetite
  • Abdominal pain

Strep vs. Non-Strep Sore Throats

Strep throat is not the only infection that can cause a sore throat. In fact, viral illnesses that cause a sore throat are more common than strep throat.

There are a few ways that strep throat is different from a sore throat from a viral infection. For example, strep throat may start suddenly with a fever. Sore throats from viral infections tend to happen gradually.

If you have strep throat, you usually do not have a cough. A sore throat from a virus is more likely to have a cough with it, along with other cold symptoms like:

  • A runny nose
  • A hoarse voice
  • An eye infection commonly called "pink eye" (conjunctivitis)

Recap

The main symptom of strep throat is a sore throat. It may hurt a lot when you swallow. The pain may start suddenly and come with a fever and chills. Your tonsils might be red and swollen. They might also have white streaks or pus on them. You might also have other symptoms, like fatigue and a headache.

Causes

Strep throat spreads in saliva or other body fluids that have group A Streptococcus bacteria in them. If someone who has strep coughs or sneezes around you, it can expose you to the bacteria. You can also pick it up if you touch people or objects that have bacteria on them.

Strep throat is very contagious. It's easily spread from one person to another. Some people are more likely to catch strep throat than other people, including people with weak immune systems, people having chemotherapy, babies, and people who are pregnant.

If someone in your home catches strep throat, there are steps you can take to lower your chances of catching it:

  • Do not share personal items, like towels, drinking cups, and eating utensils, with the person who is sick.
  • Wash clothes and bedding in hot water.
  • Keep your hands clean (that means washing your hands correctly and often).

Recap

If you have strep throat, the bacteria making you sick is in your saliva and other body fluids. If you cough or sneeze, you can easily spread the bacteria to people around you. If someone shares a drink with you or touches an object that has infected fluids on it, they can also get sick.

If someone in your home has strep throat, there are some ways to avoid catching it. Do not share personal items like cups or towels with a person who is sick. You can also keep your home clean by washing clothes and bedding in hot water. You should also wash your hands often.

Diagnosis

Your regular doctor can usually tell if you have strep throat. A doctor who is an expert in throat health (otolaryngologist) can also diagnose the infection.

A healthcare provider will ask you about your symptoms and look at your throat and neck. They will look for signs of strep throat, including:

  • Redness, swelling, or white patches that look like pus in the throat or on your tonsils
  • A rash on your body that started on your neck and chest 
  • Red spots on the roof of your mouth (petechiae)
  • Swollen tonsils (tonsillitis)
  • Lymph nodes that are swollen

Your doctor might do some tests to figure out if you have strep throat. 

  • A rapid strep test uses a sample of saliva from the back of your throat. The results only take a few minutes, but sometimes, they are not right. A rapid strep test might say that you do not have strep throat when you really do. This is called a false-negative test result.
  • A throat culture uses a sample of tissue your provide gets from the back of your throat using a swab. The sample is sent to the laboratory where technicians will look at it to see if any bacteria is growing. The results take several days to come back, but it is considered the most accurate test for strep throat.

Recap

Your doctor will ask you about you feel and look at your throat. They might do a fast test in their office to see if you have strep throat. However, this test might say that you do not have strep throat when you really do (false-negative result). A more accurate test called a throat culture looks for bacteria in your throat, but it takes longer to get the results.

If the test shows that you have strep bacteria in your throat, your doctor can prescribe you an antibiotic to treat it.

Treatment

Before your doctor decides on treatment, they will want to make sure that you do not have a sore throat for another reason. For example, if you have a viral illness that is causing strep throat, it cannot be treated with antibiotics.

However, if you have strep throat, it means you have a bacterial infection. In this case, you would need an antibiotic. There are different antibiotics that treat strep throat, including:

Your doctor will look at your medical record and talk to you about your health before they decide which antibiotic to give you. For example, if you are allergic to penicillin, they can prescribe you a different kind of antibiotic.

Sometimes, antibiotics are not strong enough to clear up a strep throat infection. This is called antibiotic resistance. If you are being treated for strep throat but your symptoms do not get better, your doctor will change your treatment.

Once you've been taking antibiotics for 24 to 48 hours, you can't spread strep throat to other people.

It is important to take your antibiotic prescription exactly how your doctor tells you to. You need to finish all of the medication—even if you start to feel better.

If you stop taking the antibiotics too early, the infection might not clear up. Instead, it might get worse. You could also have serious complications from the infection.

Strep throat symptoms like fever, muscle aches, and a headache can usually be treated with over-the-counter (OTC) medicine like ibuprofen. Home remedies like having cool drinks or ice pops can also help ease throat pain.

Getting plenty of rest, staying hydrated, and eating nutritious meals (even if it hurts to swallow) will also help your body recover.

Recap

If you have strep throat your doctor will prescribe you an antibiotic. This medication fights bacteria. You can also use some home remedies, like cool drinks and OTC pain relievers, to help ease your symptoms. Getting plenty of rest and fluids will also help you recover.

Prognosis

Strep throat usually gets better in about a week as long as you follow your doctor's orders. Most people who get strep don't have any serious side effects or long-term problems from the illness.

Your provider will let you know when you can go back to your normal activities, like school or work. Follow your doctor's directions even if you start feeling better sooner. This will make sure that you do not spread the infection to other people or push yourself too much before you're fully recovered.

If you are sticking to your treatment plan but don't feel better or you start to feel sicker, tell your doctor right away. You might need a different treatment to make sure the infection clears up and prevent complications.

Recap

Your doctor will give you a treatment plan for strep throat. If you follow it, you should feel better in about a week. If you are not feeling better or feel worse, tell your doctor right away. You might need a different treatment.

Summary

Strep throat is a common infection that is caused by bacteria. The most common symptom is a very sore throat. Your tonsils may also swell up and have pus on them. Healthcare providers can test for the infection by taking a sample from the throat and seeing if bacteria is growing in it.

Since strep throat is caused by bacteria, it can usually be treated with antibiotics. There are also home remedies and OTC treatments, like cool drinks and ibuprofen, that can cause symptoms.

Most people recover from strep throat in about a week and do not have any long-term problems. However, if a person stops their prescribed treatment too soon, the infection might not get better. They could also develop serious complications.

A Word From Verywell

Strep throat can be a literal pain in the neck, but if you rest and follow your doctor's orders, you should be back to your typical routine in about a week.

Your doctor will probably give you antibiotic medication to clear up the infection. You might start feeling better within a few days of taking it, but it's important that you take all the doses that have been given to you.

It's not common to have serious complications from a case of strep throat, but it can happen. If you are following your treatment plan but you don't feel better or you start feeling worse, tell your doctor right away.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is strep throat contagious?

    Yes, strep throat is contagious, but after 24 to 48 hours of taking antibiotics the infection should no longer be contagious. There are a few ways the infection can spread. Breathing infected airborne particles, touching a contaminated surface and then touching the mouth or nose, and sharing personal items like toothbrushes or utensils can cause a person to become sick. Taking antibiotics when necessary and practicing good hygiene, such as regular hand washing, are effective ways to prevent the spread of strep throat.

  • How long does strep throat last?

    Many cases of strep throat symptoms last for one week. Untreated strep throat can lead to severe complications, including kidney disease, guttate psoriasis (skin condition), abscess to appear near the tonsils, rheumatic fever, and scarlet fever.

  • What is the best antibiotic for strep throat?

    The best antibiotic for strep throat is not the same for everyone. Some people have an allergic reaction to certain medication, so the most effective option will differ. A medical professional will help choose the best option for each person. Some antibiotics commonly prescribed for strep throat include amoxicillin, penicillin, cephalosporin, clindamycin, clarithromycin, and azithromycin.

  • What does strep throat look like?

    Strep throat can cause the tonsils to become red, swollen, and show white patches of pus. Additionally, small red spots called petechiae can appear on the roof of the mouth, the uvula may become swollen, and lymph nodes at the front of the neck also become swollen.

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6 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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