The Truth About Strep Throat
There are many myths surrounding strep throat. For instance…
- Sore throat and fever—must be strep throat, right?
- Your doctor can tell just by looking whether it is strep throat or not.
- You need antibiotics to get rid of the sore throat.
Let’s try to get a grasp on what strep throat really is, how it is actually treated, and how you can avoid it.
What Exactly is Strep Throat?
Strep throat is officially named “group A streptococcal pharyngitis.” It is an infection of the tonsils and the back of the throat caused by bacteria. Symptoms include sore throat, fever, headache, nausea, vomiting and rash. It is important to note that not everyone experiences all of the symptoms. In fact, you can have strep throat without having a sore throat! Symptoms that are not typical with strep throat include cough, runny nose and congestion.
How is Strep Throat Diagnosed?
Typically, we use a cotton swab that we run over the tonsils and back of the throat. We then do a test on the swab looking for the bacteria. A “rapid test” is done first and takes about 5-10 minutes. If it is positive, you will be treated. If it is negative, a culture should be done to make sure you aren’t infected with the bacteria. That test takes 48 hours. There are also blood tests, but those are only used for special circumstances.
Many viruses can cause symptoms identical to strep throat, including the “white spots” on the tonsils that are sometimes seen, so it is important to have a test done to know for certain if you or your child really has strep throat.
How is Strep Throat Treated?
Strep throat is treated with antibiotics, but they are not for the sore throat. You can get over the fever, sore throat and generally feeling lousy on your own.
But the bacteria can actually cause heart damage (called rheumatic heart disease), if left untreated. Also, treating the infection will help prevent the spread of it to others and you will feel better faster. Anyone is considered contagious until he or she has been on antibiotics for 24 hours and he or she should not return to school, work or daycare before then.
As far as which antibiotic is best, this is one case where penicillin and amoxicillin are very effective. Even if your child has had ear infections that were not cured by amoxicillin, it should work for strep throat because we know which bacteria are causing the illness, unlike ear infections where we have to guess which antibiotic will work best.
It is very important to take all 10 days of the antibiotic to make sure the bacteria are gone.
How is Strep Throat Spread?
Strep throat spreads from person to person through respiratory droplets and saliva. This means coughing, sneezing, and sharing cups or eating utensils will spread the infection. It takes between two and five days after being exposed to the bacteria to start to develop symptoms. It is not spread between animals and people, so don’t worry about the family dog catching it!
It is possible to re-infect yourself, so make sure to replace your toothbrush before you finish the antibiotics, or boil it in water for five minutes.
Basic Tips for Soothing Strep Throat
Generally, symptoms of strep throat start to improve in 24-48 hours after beginning treatment. To help soothe a sore throat, try drinking warm liquids, such as lemon tea or tea with honey. You can also gargle several times a day with warm salt water (1/2 tsp of salt in 1 cup water), drink cold liquids, or suck on popsicles, hard candies or throat lozenges. (Young children should not be given hard candies or throat lozenges, as they can choke on them.) Acetaminophen and ibuprofen can also be very helpful.
This is a time of year when many people get sick, so hopefully by understanding what strep throat is, you will be able to prevent catching it or will be able to treat it more effectively.