How to recognize strep throat
Strep throat is most common in children and can be spread easily in schools.
Strep throat can cause many uncomfortable symptoms. Examples include:
- sore throat, often so sore that it is difficult to swallow
- body aches
- fever, usually higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit
- loss of appetite
- nausea or vomiting
- rash that feels like sandpaper on the body
- small, red spots on the roof of the mouth
- swollen neck glands that feel like small, round bumps
- swollen tonsils
- white patches or streaks on tonsils
In very young children, strep throat can also cause increased drooling.
Image credit: Dr. James Heilman, (2010, September 29.)
Image credit: Mp3car, (2009, August 13.)
Image credit: Dr. James Heilman, (2010, August 15.)
Image credit: Dr. James Heilman, (2010, August 12.)
When a person opens their mouth wide to expose the back of the throat, there are a few "normal" things most people will see:
- Skin that appears pink in color and is smooth and consistent in texture.
- The uvula, a dangling piece of skin in the back of the throat, which is pink and rounded.
- Tonsils that are small, flesh-colored pockets of skin (unless they have been removed).
This appearance can change quite a bit with strep throat. When a person with strep throat opens their mouth and looks inside, they will likely see:
- The back of the throat is inflamed and reddened. This area is called the soft palate. Some doctors may describe it as "beefy."
- Tonsils that are enlarged and extend past the soft palate. They may have white or yellow patches or streaks covering them.
- A uvula that appears swollen and red. It may be covered with white or yellow patches.
- The back of the throat may have small red bumps or streaks on it.
- It's possible that a person could have almost the same symptoms with a viral or other infection type. This is why a doctor will conduct a "rapid strep" test. This test can determine if strep bacteria are present in the back of the throat.
In addition to a visual exam and quick strep test, there are a few symptoms that could indicate that it is strep throat rather than another illness. For example, a strep infection is more likely to involve a fever than a viral infection.
Another difference is that strep throat usually doesn't cause a cough, runny nose, or watery eyes. Viral infections and mucus in the throat from allergies or other conditions are more likely to cause a cough.
Home remedies can relieve the symptoms of sore throat.
- Use over-the-counter (OTC) painkillers, such as ibuprofen
- Drink cool or warm drinks, but not very hot drinks
- Eat cool, soft foods
- Adults can gargle with salt water
- Avoid smoking and second-hand smoke
- Suck lozenges or hard candy
- Suck ice cubes
Children under 16 years should not have aspirin, nor should they gargle with salt water or suck small sweets.
Antibiotics can shorten the time that symptoms last, reduce the risk of transmitting the bacteria to others, and lessen the chance of complications developing.
If the sore throat is caused by a virus, antibiotics will not work and they will not be prescribed.
The bacteria that cause strep throat are group A Streptococcus. These bacteria are commonly transmitted by contact with an infected person or by breathing in the droplets of an infected person.
Sneezing, sharing utensils, or touching an object after an infected person has touched it can all spread strep throat. This is because the strep throat bacteria most often live in a person's nose and throat.
Strep throat is highly contagious. If a person is diagnosed with strep throat, they should take precautions and practice good hygiene so that they do not infect others until they are free from fever for at least 24 hours and symptoms start improving.
Children are more likely to experience strep throat than adults. They are often in close quarters with each other at daycares and schools. Some children may not have any symptoms but carry the strep bacteria, exposing others to it.
When to see a doctor
Anyone with a fever greater than 101 degrees Fahrenheit and other strep throat symptoms should see their doctor. The presence of a fever can signal a bacterial infection that antibiotics may be able to treat.
In severe instances, strep throat can cause infections in areas other than the throat. Examples include the ear and, more seriously, the blood.
Having strep throat can also cause inflammation in the body that leads to other, more severe illnesses or complications.
For this reason, it is important to seek treatment and to get a definitive diagnosis.
Antibiotics won't treat other causes of an irritated throat, and taking medicines that aren't needed can mean they work less well when someone really does have a bacterial infection.
If anyone takes antibiotics for a strep throat and doesn't feel better after about 2 days of taking them, they should call their doctor.
Strep throat will usually go away without treatment.
However, the risk of some complications increases without treatment:
- acute rheumatic fever
- suppurative complications such as peritonsillar abscess or mastoiditis
- scarlet fever
- kidney inflammation
A doctor may recommend treatment with antibiotics to prevent these.