Strep throat is a bacterial infection
often treated with antibiotics
By: Darla Van Heerde, M.D.
You woke up in the morning feeling fine, but by noon your throat was so sore that swallowing was difficult. The lymph nodes in your neck were swollen and tender, and your forehead felt hot, indicating a fever. You had your suspicions about what was ailing you, but when you looked at your throat and saw that it was bright red dotted with white spots, you were fairly sure that you were infected with the streptococcal bacteria, more commonly known as strep throat.
Strep throat is characterized by sudden, severe throat pain. The throat appears red with white or yellow spots. Other symptoms can include a fever over 101 degrees Fahrenheit, swollen tonsils and lymph nodes, headache, abdominal pain, vomiting and loss of appetite.
In some cases, a rough-feeling red rash develops and spreads over the neck, chest, and eventually the whole body. This condition is known as scarlet fever. Like strep throat, scarlet fever is treated with antibiotics, which typically lead to a quick recovery.
Rarely, a strep throat infection can lead to rheumatic fever, which is characterized by weakness, shortness of breath, joint pain, raised red rash or lumps under the skin and uncontrolled, jerking movements of the arms or legs. These symptoms develop a week or more after a strep infection. Call your health care professional if you experience the symptoms of rheumatic fever.
There are certain symptoms that are not associated with strep. These are runny nose, coughing and sneezing. If you experience these cold-like symptoms with a sore throat, it is more likely that a virus, not the strep bacteria, causes your illness. Viruses are responsible for the majority of sore throats. Bacteria cause only about five to 10 percent.
Even though you may have all the classic symptoms of strep, your doctor will want to complete a test to confirm the diagnosis by taking a sample from the back of your throat with a cotton swab. A rapid strep test can usually provide confirmation in about 15 minutes. In some cases, another test, called a throat culture, may be required to confirm the diagnosis. It takes 24 hours before results from a throat culture are available.
Antibiotics are effective in treating bacterial infections, so they are typically used to treat strep. Antibiotics kill the strep bacteria, shorten the time you are contagious and reduce your risk of complications. It is important to complete the full course of antibiotics that your doctor prescribes, even if you begin to feel better before all your medication is gone. Your health care provider may also recommend over-the-counter medications, such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen and gargling with salt water to relieve discomfort.
Antibiotics do not have an impact on viral infections, so if your sore throat is caused by a virus, your doctor will not recommend antibiotic treatment.
Strep throat is contagious. It passes through the air in tiny water droplets when an infected person breathes, coughs or sneezes. The incubation period from the time you are infected to the time you experience symptoms varies from two to five days. The duration of the illness varies from three to seven days, however if you are not treated with antibiotics, you can continue to spread the disease for two to three weeks, even if you are experiencing no symptoms. A person is usually no longer contagious 24 hours after taking prescribed antibiotics.
The best-case scenario, however, is to avoid getting strep completely. You can do this by avoiding contact with anyone that you know has strep. Wash your hands thoroughly and often, especially when you are around people who are sick. Do not share cups, straws, toothbrushes or eating utensils with others. Try to avoid rubbing your eyes, nose or putting your fingers in your mouth. Bacteria can enter your body this way and infect you. Maintain your overall health by getting adequate sleep, exercising regularly and eating a healthy diet.
There's no question that the strep bacteria is lurking out there. But, with some common sense precautions, you can avoid being infected. If you do suspect that you have contracted strep throat, your best offense is a quick defense. See your health care provider so you can begin a course of antibiotics and get back on the path to good health as soon as possible.
Dr. Van Heerde is a board certified family practice physician at Raiter Clinic.