What Is Strep Throat?

Strep throat is an infection caused by a type of bacteria (group A streptococcus). Strep bacteria cause almost a third of all sore throats.

Strep throat usually needs treatment with antibiotics. With the proper medical care — and plenty of rest and fluids — most kids get back to school and play within a few days.

What Are the Signs & Symptoms of Strep Throat?

Symptoms of strep throat include:

  • sore throat
  • fever
  • red and swollen tonsils
  • painful or swollen neck glands

Not all sore throats are strep throats. Often, kids have a sore throat because of a virus , which will usually clear up without medical treatment.

Kids who do have strep throat might get other symptoms within about 3 days, such as:

  • red and white patches in the throat
  • trouble swallowing
  • a headache
  • lower stomach pain
  • general discomfort, uneasiness, or ill feeling
  • loss of appetite
  • nausea
  • rash

illustration

Is Strep Throat Contagious?

Strep throat is very contagious. Anybody can get it, but most cases are in school-age kids and teens. Infections are common during the school year when big groups of kids and teens are in close quarters.

How Do People Get Strep Throat?

The bacteria that cause strep throat tend to hang out in the nose and throat. So normal activities like sneezing, coughing, or shaking hands can easily spread an infection from one person to another.

Kids with untreated strep throat are more likely to spread the infection when their symptoms are most severe, but can still infect others for up to 3 weeks.

That's why it's so important to teach kids the importance of hand washing. Good hygiene can lessen their chances of getting contagious diseases like strep throat.

How Is Strep Throat Diagnosed?

If your child has a sore throat and other strep throat symptoms, call your doctor. The doctor will likely do a rapid strep test in the office, using a cotton swab to take a sample of the fluids at the back of the throat. The test only takes about 5 minutes.

If it's positive, your child has strep throat. If it's negative, the doctor will send a sample to a lab for a throat culture. The results are usually available within a few days.

throat_swab_illustration

How Is Strep Throat Treated?

Doctors usually prescribe about 10 days of antibiotic medicine to treat strep throat. Within about 24 hours after starting on antibiotics, your child probably won't have a fever and won't be contagious. By the second or third day, other symptoms should start to go away.

Even when kids feel better, they should take the antibiotics as prescribed. This is the best way to kill the harmful bacteria. Otherwise, bacteria can remain in the throat and symptoms can return. Completing all the antibiotics also prevents other health problems that a strep infection can cause, such as rheumatic fever (which can cause heart damage), scarlet fever, blood infections, or kidney disease.

To prevent spreading strep throat to others in your home:

  • Keep your child's eating utensils, dishes, and drinking glasses separate and wash them in hot, soapy water after each use.
  • Make sure your child doesn't share food, drinks, napkins, handkerchiefs, or towels with other family members.
  • Teach your child to cover all sneezes or coughs. If a tissue isn't handy, kids should sneeze or cough into a shirtsleeve, not their hands.
  • Remind everyone to wash their hands well and often.
  • Give your child a new toothbrush after the antibiotic treatment starts and he or she is no longer contagious.

How Can I Help My Child Feel Better?

Home care can help your child feel better while battling strep throat. Give plenty of liquids to prevent dehydration, such as water or ginger ale, especially if he or she has had a fever. Avoid orange juice, grapefruit juice, lemonade, or other acidic beverages, which can irritate a sore throat. Warm liquids like soups, sweetened tea, or hot chocolate can be soothing.

Talk to your doctor about when your child can return to normal activities. Most kids can go back to school when they've taken antibiotics for at least 24 hours and no longer have a fever.

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Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor. © 1995-2020 KidsHealth®. All rights reserved. Images provided by The Nemours Foundation, iStock, Getty Images, Veer, Shutterstock, and Clipart.com.

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