We can all agree that having a sore throat is miserable. Some people describe it as trying to swallow razor blades or broken shards of glass, which is a scary visual but pretty darn accurate.
Usually, your run-of-the-mill sore throats will come along with some other common symptoms, like a runny nose, coughing or sneezing, and will likely go away after a few days. But what happens if your sore throat lingers? Or worse, it keeps returning unwelcomed?
It may be a sign you have recurring strep throat.
Read on to learn the difference between the two and what to do about frequent strep throat.
Sore throat or strep throat symptoms?
A sore throat can have many causes, such as a virus, allergies (like post-nasal drip) or bacteria.
[Also read “How to Know If It’s a Virus or Bacteria Making You Sick.”]
“Viral is generally the most common reason for a sore throat in adolescents but strep throat is not an uncommon reason as well,” said Colton Redding, DO, a family medicine physician with Banner Health in Colorado. “Strep is commonly seen in children and adolescents or teens and less commonly in children under 3 years old and adults.”
Strep throat is a bacterial infection, called group A streptococcus, in the throat and tonsils that causes a painful sore throat and swollen or inflamed tonsils that are sometimes dotted with white pus-filled spots known as plaque or exudate.
It usually comes on quickly and signs and symptoms of a strep infection may include fever, headache, nausea, vomiting and stomach pain.
To rule out a sore throat, you’ll want to get a rapid strep test or a throat culture (also known as a throat swab) that can produce test results within a few minutes.
Why do I keep getting strep throat?
For some people, strep isn’t just an illness, it’s a recurring nightmare. Move over Freddy.
Generally, you’ll normally have three or more cases in a year for it to be considered recurrent.
Thankfully, strep throat rarely becomes a problem. “Untreated strep throat, however, can lead to complications that involve the skin, heart or kidneys,” Dr. Redding said. “It can put you at risk for developing scarlet fever or rheumatic fever, which can cause damage to your heart tissues and heart valves and possibly other organs.”
In addition, when strep isn’t appropriately treated, it can get into the bloodstream and develop into sepsis, which can be life-threatening.
According to Dr. Redding, there are several reasons you may get frequent strep throat infections:
- A hidden carrier. If there is someone you are in close contact with, they could be a strep carrier. Your child, your partner or a coworker could have the bacteria that causes strep in their nose and throat but not show any strep throat symptoms. When they sneeze or cough, respiratory droplets get expelled, bringing the bacteria along for the ride.
- An immune system deficiency. If you are in overall poor health or have an immune system that isn’t working the way it should, you are most vulnerable.
- Resistance to antibiotics. Because it is a bacterial infection, most providers prescribe antibiotics to fight the infection, with penicillin or amoxicillin. However, if you’re treated with antibiotics too often, the bacteria can become resistant to antibiotic treatment.
To reduce your risk of getting strep throat, remember to thoroughly wash your hands with soap and water and minimize the time you spend with sick people. Additionally, you can boost your immune system by getting plenty of sleep, eating a nutritious and balanced diet, getting regular exercise and avoiding excessive and prolonged stress.
What you can do for recurring strep throat
Though there is a push internationally to develop a vaccine against Strep A, there currently is no cure.
Treating repetitive strep throat is tricky depending on the cause of the recurrence. If antibiotics you were initially prescribed aren’t doing the trick, your provider may change the dosage, select a different medication or put you on a long-term course of antibiotics.
Though less frequently recommended these days, your provider may also recommend that you receive a tonsillectomy, a surgery to remove your tonsils. Recovery for this is longer for adults than children if surgery is recommended.
Strep throat is a bacterial infection that can be quite painful. If you’re getting it repeatedly, it can also be a nightmare. The good news is that with proper treatment, you can start to feel better.