What is strep throat?

Strep throat (streptococcal pharyngitis) is a highly contagious bacterial infection in your throat and tonsils.

It differs from other types of pharyngitis, or sore throat, that are caused by viral infection.

When left untreated, strep throat can cause serious complications such as rheumatic fever.

If you suspect you or your child has strep throat, visit your primary care doctor right away.

Tonsillitis Common Cold (Upper Respiratory Infection) Mononucleosis (Mono)

Causes of strep throat

Bacteria known as Group A Streptococcus that live in the nose and throat are easily spread, making them highly contagious.

These bacteria can be transferred to the mouth, nose or eyes through:

  • Airborne contamination — when an infected person coughs or sneezes
  • Contact contamination — when an infected person shares food and drinks or touches common surfaces like doorknobs and handrails

Risk factors for strep throat

Risk factors for strep include:

  • Contamination — coming into contact with someone who has the infection
  • Age — strep throat is most common in children, though anyone can be susceptible

Symptoms of strep throat

The most common symptom of strep is a sore throat, often combined with other symptoms including:

  • Pain when swallowing that develops very quickly
  • Fever
  • Tender, swollen lymph nodes in the neck
  • White patches or white pus on the tonsils or throat
  • Red or swollen tonsils
  • Tiny, red bumps on the roof of the mouth
  • Headache
  • Body aches
  • Nausea or vomiting (more common in young children)

These symptoms can be caused by many other conditions, so it is important to visit your doctor to properly diagnose your condition.

Diagnosis of strep throat

Strep throat is diagnosed in a physical exam by a primary care doctor who checks your throat and tonsils for symptoms.

Strep is confirmed by:

  • Rapid antigen test (rapid strep test) — detects nearly immediately if Group A Strep bacteria is present on your throat, but this quick test sometimes produces false results
  • Throat swab culture — often performed in combination with a rapid strep test, this collection is cultured in a laboratory over 1-2 days to confirm the presence of Group A strep bacteria

Treatments for strep throat

Oral antibiotics are necessary to treat strep throat. If caught early, the antibiotics will lessen the duration and severity of the condition. Some people will need medications to treat symptoms.

Treatment options include:

  • Pain reliever such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen
  • Warm, hydrating fluids
  • Throat lozenges

Recovery from strep throat 

After 24 hours on antibiotics, your strep throat is no longer contagious even if you still have symptoms. The full dose of antibiotic treatment should be completed, typically lasting 10 days.

Most people recover from strep throat symptoms within a week after beginning treatment.

Find a primary care doctor nearby

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