Medically reviewed by Mary Lucas, RN
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 11/18/2020
Strep throat is a bacterial infection that can cause your throat and tonsils to become inflamed, scratchy and painful.
Unlike many cases of sore throat, which are typically caused by viruses, strep throat is caused by the group A Streptococcus (strep) bacteria. It can cause a range of symptoms and, if it’s left untreated, can sometimes lead to potentially serious health complications.
Strep throat is most common in children aged five to fifteen. However, it can affect people of all ages, especially those with school-aged children or those who are often in contact with children. It’s quite common for children to spread this infection to their parents and for this infection to spread between members of a household.
Below, we’ve explained why and how strep throat develops, as well as how healthcare professionals will typically diagnose strep throat. Finally, we’ve listed the treatments that are available both for the bacteria that causes strep throat and common symptoms.
As with other types of sore throat, the most obvious sign of strep throat is pain in the throat that develops quickly. Other signs include:
Red, swollen tonsils
Small red spots at the rear of the roof of the mouth
Pus or white patches around the tonsils
Pain and/or difficulty swallowing
Nausea and vomiting (primarily in children)
Swelling and tenderness in the lymph nodes in your neck
Sore throats can occur for a variety of reasons, including many common viral infections. If you have signs or symptoms listed above, you may not have strep throat. Instead, it’s possible that your symptoms may be caused by a different type of infection.
Your symptoms may be more likely to be caused by a virus if you also have a cough, conjunctivitis (pink eye), a runny nose or a hoarse voice.
Signs and symptoms of strep throat can vary in severity. Some people may only experience a mild sore throat, while others may experience a severe level of pain and discomfort in the throat, difficulty swallowing, fever and other symptoms.
Although uncommon, it’s possible for a strep throat infection to lead to a range of serious health complications when the bacteria that cause this infection spread throughout the body, including the following:
Abscesses near the tonsils
Swollen lymph nodes in the neck
Rheumatic fever, which can potentially cause long-term heart damage (rheumatic heart disease)
Post-streptococcal glomerulonephritis (PSGN), a kidney disease
To reduce your risk of experiencing complications, it’s important to talk to a healthcare professional if you notice yourself developing any strep throat symptoms.
It’s best to talk to a healthcare professional if you experience any of the common symptoms of strep throat listed above, especially if you develop them without a cough, runny nose, hoarse voice or other signs that could point to a viral infection. It’s especially important to talk to a healthcare professional if:
You have a persistent sore throat that doesn’t go away after 48 hours.
You have a sore throat accompanied by swollen, tender and/or painful lymph nodes in your throat.
You have a sore throat that’s accompanied by a skin rash.
You have difficulty breathing or swallowing.
You have a fever.
As we mentioned earlier, strep throat is a bacterial infection that’s caused by exposure to group A Streptococcus (strep) bacteria. The Streptococcus bacteria are responsible for a large range of bacterial infections that can affect both children and adults.
The Streptococcus bacteria are highly contagious. They can spread from person to person in a variety of ways, such as:
Through respiratory droplets that can spread into the air by an infected person coughing or sneezing.
Through shared drinks, food, eating utensils and other items that come into contact with the nose and throat.
Through touching an item that contains the bacteria, then touching your mouth or nose.
Through touching sores caused by group A Streptococcus (impetigo), which can form on the skin.
Through close contact with an infected person, such as kissing a romantic partner with a strep infection.
In rare cases, through food contaminated with the group A Streptococcus bacteria due to improper food handling.
Most of the time, it takes two to five days to develop symptoms after being exposed to the group A Streptococcus (strep) bacteria.
Strep throat is most common in children aged from five to 15. It’s uncommon in children under the age of three. However, people of all ages, including adults, can develop strep throat if they are exposed to the group A Streptococcus (strep) bacteria.
If you’re the parent of a child aged between five and 15, or you frequently have regular contact with children in this age group, you may have an increased risk of developing strep throat.
Like other bacterial infections, strep throat can spread easily in crowded areas. If you work in a school or daycare center, live in a military facility or spend time in other crowded environments, you may have an elevated risk of getting this infection.
Strep throat can occur at any time of year. However, like many other illnesses, it tends to spread during winter and early spring.
To diagnose strep throat, your healthcare provider will likely look at your throat and neck to check for visible symptoms, such as inflammation or swelling.
If you have visible symptoms but your healthcare provider isn’t sure of a strep infection, they may perform a quick test, referred to as a rapid strep test. To do this, they’ll take a sample from the back of your throat using a swab, then test the sample for group A Streptococcus (strep) bacteria.
This type of test only takes a few minutes to process. If you have group A Streptococcus (strep) bacteria and it shows up on the test, your healthcare provider will prescribe medication.
Rapid strep testing is generally accurate, but it isn’t perfect. In some cases, a rapid test may give a false negative result, meaning that it misses the presence of strep bacteria even if you’re infected.
If your healthcare provider still thinks that you have strep throat after a negative rapid strep test, they may recommend that you take a throat culture swab.
This type of test can take a few days to provide results, but it’s more accurate than the quick test that’s performed at a healthcare provider’s office. They will let you know the results after the sample is analyzed in the lab and, if necessary, prescribe medication to treat the strep infection.
Throat culture testing usually isn’t necessary for adults. However, it’s often used for children with signs of strep throat, due to their increased risk of developing certain complications.
Strep throat is treatable, with antibiotics clearing up most cases quickly and usually with few major side effects. If your child or someone close to you has strep throat, there are also steps that you can take to reduce your risk of becoming infected.
If you suspect that you have strep throat, the best thing to do is to talk to a healthcare professional. Strep throat usually needs to be treated with prescription antibiotics, meaning you’ll need to talk to a healthcare professional before you can buy suitable medication.
Below, we’ve listed the treatment options your healthcare provider may recommend. We’ve also listed home remedies and lifestyle changes that may ease certain symptoms of strep throat.
Most cases of strep throat are treated using antibiotics. Healthcare professionals usually prescribe oral antibiotics such as penicillin or amoxicillin as first line treatments for strep throat.
These can help to reduce the severity of symptoms and help you or your child recover from the infection faster. If you’re allergic to penicillin, there are other options that can be prescribed for you.
Because antibiotics get rid of the bacteria that cause strep throat to develop, they can also help to lower you or your child’s risk of developing serious complications or spreading the infection to others.
If you or your child are prescribed antibiotics to treat strep throat, it’s important to continue using the medication for as long as your healthcare provider recommends, even if your symptoms disappear before the end of treatment. Stopping antibiotics early may cause the infection to recur.
You or your child should begin to notice improvements after taking antibiotics for 24 to 48 hours. If you don’t notice any improvements after 48 hours of starting antibiotics, or think that your symptoms have worsened even after you started taking antibiotics, contact your healthcare provider for further assistance.
Although over-the-counter medications won’t kill the bacteria that causes strep throat, they can help to relieve some of the symptoms.
If you have soreness caused by strep throat, over-the-counter pain relief medications such as acetaminophen (Tylenol®) or ibuprofen (Advil®, Motrin®) may be able to make pain and discomfort less intense.
Make sure you follow the dosage instructions provided with pain relief medication closely to reduce the risk of side effects. Certain pain medications, such as aspirin, may cause potentially dangerous complications for some children and teenagers, including those recovering from certain viral infections such as chickenpox or the flu.
If your child has pain and/or discomfort caused by strep throat, talk to their healthcare provider about safe, effective medications for relieving pain before giving them anything.
Like over-the-counter treatments, home remedies won’t get rid of the bacteria that causes strep throat in the first place. However, some home remedies and lifestyle changes can help to make the symptoms of strep throat easier to deal with.
If you or your child has strep throat, you should see a healthcare professional and follow their instructions before using any home remedies. Along with antibiotics, the following tips and tactics may help:
Stay hydrated. Drinking plenty of water not only lubricates your throat to help relieve the symptoms of strep throat, but it also keeps you from becoming dehydrated which can affect your health in many negative ways, including affecting how your immune system functions.
Make sure you get enough sleep. Healthy sleep is essential for a strong and functional immune system. Make sure that you get a full night’s sleep and, if possible, try to take it easy during the daytime to let your body focus on fighting the infection.
Avoid spicy, acidic or difficult-to-swallow foods. Instead, stick to foods that are easy to swallow, such as soups, soft fruits, yoghurt, mashed potatoes and other starches. You can also use cold foods such as ice cream, frozen fruit pops, or frozen yoghurt to relieve throat pain.
Relieve throat pain by gargling with salt water. If your throat hurts and a pain reliever isn’t enough, try gargling with warm salt water. Mix a quarter teaspoon of salt into eight ounces of warm water, then gargle if you feel soreness or itchiness in your throat. If you’re giving your older child a salt water gargle, be sure you instruct them to spit the water out after gargling.
Avoid smoking and other sources of irritation. If you smoke, try to reduce your usage of cigarettes while you’re recovering from strep throat. Other irritants, such as chemicals used to clean your home, should be avoided while you’re recovering as their fumes can irritate your already sore throat.
Keep your home environment humid. If you have a humidifier, using it may be helpful if you have a sore, irritated throat. Just make sure to clean your humidifier frequently, as it can be an easy place for certain types of mold and bacteria to grow.
Unfortunately, there’s no vaccine for strep throat. However, you can reduce your risk of getting strep throat, or of passing on a strep throat infection to others if you’re already sick, through the following steps:
Wash your hands regularly. If you’re sick, or if others around you are sick, wash your hands frequently using soap and water. This will help to get rid of bacteria that can lead to strep throat and other infections.
Use hand sanitizer. If you’re out and about and can’t wash your hands often, use hand sanitizer to keep your hands as clean as possible.
If you’re sick, be careful when you sneeze or cough. Strep throat can spread through respiratory droplets. If you need to sneeze or cough, make sure to cover your mouth with a tissue, or use the inside of your elbow to avoid spreading bacteria to your hands.
If you cough or sneeze into tissues, dispose of them in the waste basket as soon as you can after use.
Avoid sharing drinks, food and eating utensils. These can all spread strep throat and other infections.
Also, make sure to wash glasses, utensils and other items that come into direct contact with the nose and mouth to avoid spreading strep throat in your household.
Finally, if you’re being treated for strep throat, try to avoid crowded places such as school or the workplace until you’ve been using antibiotics for at least 24 hours and no longer have a fever in order to reduce your risk of spreading the infection to others.
Worried you have strep throat? Consult with a licensed healthcare provider now to discuss your symptoms and learn more about what you can do to treat strep throat and a large range of other health conditions.
If appropriate, the provider can write you a prescription on the spot and send it directly to a local pharmacy of your choice, allowing you to get the relief you need fast, all without having to go to a healthcare provider’s office.
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