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Strep is More Than a Sore Throat

Last updated: October 12, 2022

Strep throat is most common in the winter and spring when people are in close contact while indoors. Once school starts, we tend to see an uptick in the number of strep throat cases.

Dr. Christopher Weirtz, Pediatrician, ThedaCare Physicians Pediatrics-Appleton

More than 3 million cases of strep throat are diagnosed each year in the United States. While it is more common in children, people of all ages may contract strep throat. 

“Viruses cause most sore throats. However, strep throat is caused by a bacterium — group A Streptococcus. It tends to cause a more serious sore throat and is highly contagious,” says Dr. Christopher Weirtz, a pediatrician with ThedaCare Physicians Pediatrics-Appleton.  

Strep Symptoms

Strep throat is transmitted by air droplets that spread when you talk, sneeze or cough, as well as through sharing drinking glasses and eating utensils. It can also spread by touching a surface contaminated by the bacterium, such as a doorknob, and then touching your nose or eyes. It typically takes two to five days after exposure for someone to become sick with strep throat. 

“Strep throat is most common in the winter and spring when people are in close contact while indoors,” Dr. Weirtz says. “Once school starts, we tend to see an uptick in the number of strep throat cases.” 

According to Mayo Clinic, the most common symptoms of strep throat are: 

  • Throat pain that comes on quickly 
  • Painful swallowing 
  • Red and swollen tonsils, sometimes accompanied by white patches, or red spots on the back of the roof of the mouth 
  • Swollen, tender lymph nodes in the neck 
  • Fever 
  • Headache 
  • Nausea and vomiting, especially in younger children 
  • Body aches  

When a sore throat lasts more than 48 hours and is accompanied by the symptoms above, it’s a good idea to see a provider, Dr. Weirtz says. Conversely, a sore throat that’s accompanied by a cough, runny nose, and hoarseness typically isn’t strep throat, he adds. 

Untreated, strep throat can cause infection to spread to the tonsils, sinuses, skin, blood, and middle ear. Strep throat can also advance into more serious disease, such as scarlet or rheumatic fever, or cause inflammation of the kidneys or heart valve damage. That’s why it’s important to see your provider if you suspect strep throat, Dr. Weirtz says. 

Diagnosing Strep

A medical diagnosis — typically through a throat swab — is needed to confirm strep throat. A rapid strep test often shows whether you have strep throat, but sometimes a longer throat culture is needed to determine if Streptococcus is present. 

“Once strep throat is diagnosed and treated with an antibiotic, the patient should feel better within 48 hours. If they don’t, it’s a good idea to check back with your provider,” Dr. Weirtz says. 

If you test positive for strep, you should stay home from work, school, day care, and social gatherings until you have been on an antibiotic for at least one day and no longer have a fever, Dr. Weirtz says.  

It’s also important to finish the full round of antibiotics prescribed. If you stop taking the medication once you’re feeling better, it can cause the infection to rebound, he says. 

Avoiding Strep

To avoid strep throat, follow these precautions: 

  • Wash your hands frequently with soap and water for 20 seconds or use an alcohol-based sanitizer, especially after coughing or sneezing and before preparing food or eating. 
  • Cover your mouth when coughing or sneezing, and sneeze into your elbow or a tissue.  
  • Don’t share drinking glasses or eating utensils.  
  • Wash dishes in hot, soapy water or in a dishwasher. 

“Strep throat is a common illness, but it can cause more serious health problems, so it should not be left untreated,” Dr. Weirtz says. 

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