Strep Throat

Young women's version of this guide

“Strep throat” is a sore throat that is caused by Group A Streptococcus bacteria. It’s the most common bacterial infection of the

“Strep throat” is a sore throat that is caused by Group A Streptococcus bacteria. It’s the most common bacterial infection of the throat, and the words “Strep Throat” (or “strep”) come from the name of the bacteria.

How does someone get strep throat?

“Strep” bacteria are contagious, and they spread through person-to-person contact with infected sputum or saliva.

You can get strep by:

  • Breathing in the same air after someone (who has it) coughs, breaths, or sneezes near you in a confined place Sharing food/drinks, shaking hands with, or kissing someone who has strep
  • You can also pick up the bacteria by touching an object (such as a doorknob) after it has been contaminated by someone who has strep and then touching your mouth or nose

What are the symptoms of strep throat?

The most common symptoms of strep throat include:

  • Sore throat
  • Fever of 100.4°F or 38°C or higher
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Swollen, red tonsils (the tonsils may also have white patches)
  • Sore swollen glands (lymph nodes in your neck)
  • Headache
  • Fatigue (feeling very tired)

Less common symptoms include: skin rash, body aches, not feeling hungry, stomach ache, and throwing up. Having a runny nose or cold symptoms makes it unlikely you have strep throat.

If you have any of these symptoms or you’ve been close to someone with strep throat, it’s important to see your health care provider so he/she can test to see if you have strep.

Some of the symptoms of strep throat are similar to those of another type of sore throat caused by viruses. However, a Group A strep infection is more serious and requires a visit to your health care provider, a rapid strep test and/or throat culture, and antibiotics.

How can my primary  care provider (PCP) tell if I have strep throat?

First, your PCP will look for signs and symptoms of strep throat, sore throat, swollen glands, and no runny nose, hoarseness, or cold symptoms. He/she will likely ask you to open your mouth as wide as you can (and say “ahh”), then may use a tongue depressor (an instrument that looks like a popsicle stick and is used to push your tongue down) to get a good look at your throat and your tonsils. Your PCP will feel your neck to check for tender swollen lymph nodes and may take your temperature to see if you have a fever.

Throat culture – Your PCP will also gently rub a sterile cotton swab over the back of your throat and tonsils. This doesn’t take long and isn’t painful, but it may cause you to gag for a second. The purpose of the swab is to get a sample that will be tested for strep bacteria.

After swabbing your throat, your PCP will do a rapid strep test. This test can detect strep bacteria within minutes. If the test is positive, your PCP will prescribe treatment right away. If the test is negative, a sample will be sent to a lab for more testing, because rapid strep tests may miss some strep infections.

What is the treatment for strep throat?

If you’ve tested positive for strep throat, your PCP will give you a prescription for antibiotics (usually penicillin or amoxicillin, unless you’re allergic). The medicine will help lessen your symptoms and lower the chance of any complications. You can return to school and work after you have no fever and have been on the medicine for 24 hours.

Even though you will start feeling better within a day or two of starting the antibiotics, it’s extremely important that you take ALL of the medicine your PCP prescribed for you. If you stop taking the medicine early, the strep could come back. If you aren’t getting better after taking antibiotics for 48 hours, you should contact your PCP.

Other things you can do to feel better when you have strep throat include:

  • Drink lots of fluids – cool liquids such as water and ginger ale can help. Sucking on an ice pop and drinking warm liquid such as soup and decaffeinated tea are good too.
  • Rest – take naps and go to bed early
  • Gargle with salt-water but don’t swallow
  • Try throat lozenges
  • Take acetaminophen or ibuprofen. Ask your primary care provider how much you should take.

Is there anything I can do to prevent getting strep throat?

Yes. Avoid being around anyone who has strep. If you’re living with someone who has a strep infection, wash your hands often, and don’t share drinking glasses, eating utensils, or toothbrushes.

It’s also important to prevent re-infecting yourself. If you have strep, make sure to get a new toothbrush. Buy a new toothbrush (throw the old one away) when you have been on antibiotics for 2-3 days to lower your chance of getting re-infected. Otherwise it’s possible for the bacteria to live in the toothbrush and make you sick again once you’ve finished your medicine.