You’re feeling pain and tingling in the back of your throat, and it hurts to swallow. Is it a sore throat or could you have strep throat?
While uncomfortable, a sore throat on its own isn’t always a cause for concern and can often be treated with over-the-counter (OTC) medications and home remedies.
However, if your throat pain includes a number of other symptoms, you could, in fact, have strep throat.
Strep throat is contagious, so the earlier it’s treated, the better. Read on to understand the tell-tale signs you should be looking for to determine if you have strep throat and how to treat it.
What is strep throat?
Strep throat is a severe kind of sore throat caused by bacteria called group A streptococcus or group A strep.
“It’s the most common cause of bacterial infections of the throat in children and adolescents, but can also occur in adults,” said Colton Redding, DO, a family medicine physician with Banner Health Center in Loveland, CO. “Strep throat is also more common in winter and early spring, but it’s possible year-round.”
Group A strep is highly contagious and can spread easily from person to person through close contact or touching a contaminated surface or item.
“The bacteria that cause strep tend to hang out in the back of the nose and throat. Strep infection can easily spread from one person to another through coughs and sneezes or shaking hands,” Dr. Redding said. “That’s why washing your hands with soap and water and practicing good hygiene is important to prevent the spread of germs.”
What are the symptoms of strep throat?
Strep throat typically comes on quickly, in about one to three days, and is typically accompanied by a number of symptoms.
Tell-tale strep throat symptoms:
- Red and white patches/white spots in the throat
- Pain with swallowing
- Tender or swollen glands (lymph nodes) in the neck
- Red or enlarged tonsils
- Fever (101 degrees or more)
- Loss of appetite and nausea
- Change in voice, often muffled sounding
- General discomfort, uneasiness or sick feeling
In addition, children may also have these symptoms:
- Lower stomach pain
- Gagging and/or vomiting
- Red rash with small spots on the body
How do you tell the difference between a sore throat and strep throat?
While it can be difficult to figure out whether you have a bacterial infection (strep throat) or a virus (sore throat), there are some key differences.
“Often a viral infection will include other viral symptoms like a runny nose, cough and eye redness,” Dr. Redding said. “The infection usually improves on its own and doesn’t require antibiotics.”
How is strep throat diagnosed?
If you think you or your child has strep throat, don’t hesitate to get tested. A rapid strep test or throat culture can determine if it’s due to group A strep.
“Both tests use the same type of soft swab,” Dr. Redding said. “The provider uses the throat swab to take some of the fluid or mucus from the back of your throat.”
Rapid test results can be ready in less than 15 minutes. If your provider does a culture, it can take up to 48 hours (two days) to learn if the test is positive.
Strep throat treatment
In most cases, you’ll take about 10 days of antibiotic medication to treat strep throat. Medication can also be given by shot and is just as effective.
“Strep throat is generally treated with a penicillin class antibiotic,” Dr. Redding said. “If you have an allergy to penicillin, there are second-line options as well.”
Within about 24 hours after taking medication, you should no longer have a fever and won’t be contagious. By the second or third day, the other symptoms start to go away, too.
“Even if you start to feel better, it’s important to finish the antibiotic treatment as prescribed,” Dr. Redding said. “If you stop too soon, bacteria can remain in the throat and the symptoms can return.”
Untreated strep throat – or not finishing prescribed antibiotics – could also put you and your child at risk for complications.
Risks may include:
- scarlet fever
- rheumatic fever, which can cause permanent damage to the heart
- blood infections or kidney disease
- pediatric autoimmune neuropsychiatric disorder (PANDAS)
What should I do if I keep getting strep throat?
“A tonsillectomy, surgery to remove tonsils, is less frequently recommended these days, but generally if you have three or more bouts of confirmed strep throat in a year it will be recommended that you be evaluated by an ear, nose and throat specialist,” Dr. Redding said.
Recovery time, like most things, is often longer for adults than children if surgery is recommended.
[Also read: “What Happens if You Get Strep Throat a Lot.”]
What can make my sore throat feel better?
Here are some things you can do that might help you feel better:
- Take ibuprofen or acetaminophen to relieve pain or reduce fever. Children shouldn’t take aspirin as it can cause a serious illness called Reye's syndrome.
- Drink plenty of fluids, like water, juice, soups or broth.
- Gargle with warm salt water.
- For adults and older children, suck on throat lozenges, hard candy, pieces of ice or popsicles.
- Get plenty of rest.
- Use a humidifier.
Throat pain can have several causes, but strep throat is a severe kind of sore throat that is caused by bacteria called group A streptococcus or group A strep. It occurs commonly in children and adolescents, but also can occur in adults.
If you’re experiencing symptoms of strep throat, your provider will need to do a rapid strep test or throat culture. Don’t delay treatment as this can put you at greater risk for complications.
To find a Banner Health specialist near you, visit bannerhealth.com.